Witnesses recount search for Bergdahl

October 25, 2017 GMT

As testimony began Wednesday in the sentencing of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for desertion, a military judge didn’t rule on whether critical comments from President Donald Trump have tainted the case.

Bergdahl, who walked away from his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, pleaded guilty last week to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.

His attorneys filed a motion Monday to end the case against him because of unlawful command influence, arguing that Trump’s criticisms of Bergdahl on the campaign trail last year have carried over to his presidency.

Trump previously called Bergdahl a traitor and suggested that he should be shot or thrown from a plane without a parachute. Last week, during a news conference, Trump said he couldn’t talk about Bergdahl before adding, “But I think people have heard my comments in the past.”

Army Col. Jeffery Nance, the judge handling Bergdahl’s court-martial, suspended the sentencing hearing on Monday to consider the motion, but he said Wednesday morning that he wants to reserve his ruling until later.

He said Monday that he would be fair and hasn’t been influenced by Trump but that he does have concerns that the president’s comments are affecting public perception.

Legal scholars say Nance’s comments Monday should resolve the issue of whether Trump directly influenced the court, but the judge must also consider whether proceedings would appear unfair to a reasonable observer

So, the sentencing hearing began with Col. Clinton Baker, Bergdahl’s battalion commander, testifying that his unit was stretched thin sending out patrols looking for the missing soldier. One unit searched for 37 straight days, he said.

Teams searched house-to-house and village-to-village for 45 days overall, Baker said, adding that they even conducted raids on known enemy compounds, which were difficult and very dangerous.

Bergdahl’s platoon leader, Evan Buetow, described the austere conditions his team endured looking for Bergdahl. He became emotional and told the judge, “We kept looking because one of my guys was gone.”

Witnesses said the search increased the unit’s exposure to IEDs and ambush attacks by the Taliban.

Retired Senior Petty Officer James Hatch, a former Navy SEAL, testified about how he was wounded while searching for Bergdahl and the 18 operations he has undergone while recovering.

Hatch became emotional as he described watching his partner’s dog, Remco, being shot and killed by insurgents before Hatch was shot in the leg. When asked by the judge if he knew that Bergdahl had walked away from his post and whether that knowledge changed his desire to search for him, Hatch responded, “No, sir, he’s an American. We have a bond.”

Bergdahl, 31, of Hailey, Idaho, spent five years as a Taliban prisoner. He has said he was caged, kept in darkness and beaten, and tried to escape more than a dozen times before President Barack Obama brought Bergdahl home in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

He could be sentenced up to life in prison, but Nance has wide latitude in sentencing and could give him lesser time or even allow him to walk free, deeming his time in captivity was punishment enough.