State News

Bergdahl apologizes for putting searchers in harm's way

Posted October 30, 2017 3:02 a.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2017 6:32 p.m. EDT

— Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl apologized Monday to everyone who was wounded while looking for him eight years ago.

Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty two weeks ago to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for walking away from his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, faces up to life in prison in his court-martial.

During his sentencing hearing, he chose to give unsworn testimony, which allows him to take the witness stand without facing cross-examination by military prosecutors.

Bergdahl, 31, of Hailey, Idaho, acknowledged he made a horrible mistake by walking off, adding that saying he is sorry will never be enough.

"My words can't take away what the people have been through," he said, choking back tears and adding that he’s thought about everything he’s done for the past eight years every day since he’s been free.

Defense attorneys questioned him about the five years he spent as a Taliban prisoner, and he said he he was moved from village to village for the first year and managed to escape a couple of times, including once for eight days. After he was recaptured, he said, he was put in a small metal cage that was built especially for him, and he lived there for the next four years until he was released in a 2014 prisoner swap.

During his captivity, he said, his health deteriorated, and on several occasions he believed he was going to die. He said he waited every day to see if the next person to come through the door came to execute him.

Todd Conormon, a former military judge, said such unsworn testimony is uncommon, but it is allowed during a sentencing.

"Sometimes, you have a situation when your client has certain emotional or physiological issues that you’re concerned about, and you don’t think they’ll handle questions that effectively. Sometimes, the accused could be talking about a horrific combat experience or traumatic things in their past," Conormon said.

Earlier Monday, Army Col. Jeffrey Nance, the military judge handling Bergdahl's case, ruled that critical comments made by President Donald Trump don't warrant any action in the court-martial.

Defense attorneys argued last week that Trump's animosity toward Bergdahl tainted the case, so the charges should be dismissed or Bergdahl should receive a minimal sentence.

While campaigning last year, Trump called Bergdahl a traitor and said he should be shot or dropped from an airplane without a parachute. During a recent press conference, Trump referenced those comments, prompting Bergdahl's defense to claim that the president's attitudes had carried over from the campaign trail to the Oval Office.

Nance ruled that the comments did amount to unlawful command influence, but that they wouldn't affect the pending sentence against Bergdahl.

"While somewhat ambiguous, the plain meaning of the President's words to any reasonable hearer could be that, in spite of knowing that he shouldn't comment on the pending sentencing in this case, he wanted to make sure that everyone remember what he really thinks should happen to the accused," Nance wrote in his five-page ruling.

Still, he said, he would be able to fairly and impartially render a decision without prejudice because of what Trump said.

"The evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that I am uninfluenced by the President's comments and, more importantly, that I hold no fear of any repercussions from anyone if they do not agree with my sentence in this case," he wrote.

Before Bergdahl's defense began, prosecutors called their final witness in the sentencing hearing.

Shannon Allen discussed a traumatic brain injury suffered by her husband when he was shot during a search mission for Bergdahl.

National Guard Master Sgt. Mark Allen was on a mission with other U.S. and Afghan troops to gather information in two villages in July 2009 when they were ambushed by insurgents using small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Allen was attempting to make a radio call when he was shot near the temple.

The wound left him unable to speak, in need of a wheelchair and dependent on assistance for such everyday tasks as getting out of bed.

Shannon Allen's voice faltered when she referred to the brain injury's effect on his interactions with their daughter, who was an infant when he was wounded. She is now 9, and his wife said he's not able to reach out and hold his daughter.

Prosecutors are using wounds to several service members who searched for Bergdahl as evidence to convince the judge that he deserves a stiff punishment.

While Bergdahl acknowledged at his plea hearing that his actions triggered the search missions that resulted in the wounds, his lawyers argue there's a limit to his responsibility for a lengthy chain of events that includes decisions by the U.S. military commanders who led the searches as well as enemy attacks.

Nance moved the hearing behind closed doors for part of Monday afternoon, when classified material was discussed.

Bergdahl has made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment, so the judge has wide leeway to determine his sentence.