Gut-wrenching testimony at the sentencing hearing for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will likely continue Tuesday as the deserter’s defense team questions officials who treated and debriefed the soldier following his brutal five years of captivity by Taliban allies.
The defense presentation began Monday in North Carolina with Bergdahl himself describing his experience in enemy hands. And that served as a dramatic counterpoint to the emotional testimony of the final prosecution witness, Shannon Allen, whose husband is unable to speak and needs help with everyday tasks after being shot in the head while searching for Bergdahl in Afghanistan.
Georgia National Guard Master Sgt. Mark Allen’s daughter is now 9 years old, and “he’s never had the chance to really play with her,” she said.
Bergdahl, who faces up to life in prison for endangering his comrades after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, told the judge he didn’t mean to cause harm when he walked off his post in 2009.
He spoke for two hours, apologizing to those wounded searching for him, and describing his captivity and the challenges he still faces with daily life.
Asked by a defense attorney what the worst part was, he said it wasn’t the beatings: “The worst was the constant, just the constant, deterioration of everything. The constant pain from my body falling apart. The constant screams from my mind,” he said, haltingly.
“It was the years of waiting to see whether or not the next time someone opens the door if that would be the person coming to execute you.”
He described brutal conditions, including beatings with copper wire and unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions. He was kept in a cage for four out of the five years after several escape attempts, his muscles atrophying to the point that he could barely stand or walk.
Bergdahl said he still has nightmares that make it hard to sleep more than five hours. He checks his door at least three times to make sure it’s secure each night and sleeps with a flashlight nearby. He wakes up sometimes not remembering that he’s back in the U.S., he said, and has daytime flashbacks to captivity arising from unpredictable triggers.
Because Bergdahl’s words in court were an unsworn statement, prosecutors won’t be given the chance to cross-examine him.
The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by President Barack Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Earlier Monday, the judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, ruled that Donald Trump’s scathing criticism of Bergdahl — made first as a candidate and reaffirmed as commander-in-chief — won’t prevent the soldier from receiving a fair sentence. Nance also said that a reasonable member of the public would not have doubts about the fairness of military justice because of Trump’s comments.
He rejected a defense request to rule that it would be unfair to give Bergdahl any prison time. The judge did say, however, that he would consider Trump’s comments as a mitigating factor, not an aggravating factor, in the sentencing. Other mitigating and aggravating factors that he could consider include Bergdahl’s mental health and serious wounds to service members who searched for him.
The hearing is expected to last several more days. Defense attorneys told the judge that one of the next witnesses they plan to call is an official who debriefed Bergdahl from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which works with captive service members. The official testified in 2015 that Bergdahl was “skin over bones” and had been subjected to worse conditions than any American prisoner of war since the Vietnam War.