Bowe Bergdahl's attorneys will present evidence Friday during the second day of a hearing to determine whether the Army sergeant should face a military trial for leaving his post in Afghanistan, although they aren't saying if Bergdahl himself will be called as a witness.
The Article 32 hearing for Bergdahl, who is charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, is taking place at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he has been stationed since returning to the U.S. last year.
Officials say the Taliban captured Bergdahl after he left his post in 2009, and he remained a prisoner for five years before being released in an exchange for five Taliban commanders being held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prisoner swap was sharply criticized by many Republicans and some Democrats, who said it was politically motivated and counter to the U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists.
"It's our turn at bat," Bergdahl's lead attorney, Eugene Fidell, said Thursday, shortly after prosecutors had finished presenting their case.
Fidell declined to discuss his strategy or to say whether Bergdahl's mental health history, including being diagnosed with a "severe mental defect," would play a role in his defense.
Fidell said he would call four witnesses, though he declined to say if Bergdahl would be one of them. He also repeated his call for the military to make public Bergdahl's interview with military investigators after his return to the U.S., saying it would help tell Bergdahl's side of the story and also counteract the negative publicity Bergdahl has faced since his return.
Prosecutors on Thursday didn't mention the criticism that has surrounded Bergdahl since his return but focused on trying to substantiate the misbehavior charge. That charge, which carries a possible life sentence, would require them to prove that Bergdahl's actions put other soldiers in harm's way. If convicted, Bergdahl also could be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank and made to forfeit all pay.
The prosecution's three witnesses — commanders Bergdahl's platoon, company and battalion — testified Thursday that his disappearance from his post in Afghanistan put a strain on their forces and put his fellow soldiers in danger.
Capt. John Billings, who led Bergdahl's platoon, described the 45-day search for the Idaho native as grueling, saying soldiers got little food or sleep and endured temperatures in the high-90s.
"Physically, mentally I was defeated," Billings said, adding that he felt like he had "failed" his men.
His company commander, Maj. Silvino Silvino, said some of the thousands of soldiers who took part in the search were angry about it because they felt Bergdahl had deserted. Military prosecutor Maj. Margaret Kurz said Thursday that Bergdahl had actually been planning for weeks to abandon the post.
Finally, Bergdahl's battalion commander, Col. Clinton Baker, said that although no soldiers died as part of the search, there was a spike in improvised explosive device attacks because soldiers were going to places they ordinarily wouldn't have gone.
Under questioning by one of Bergdahl's attorneys, Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt, Billings said he wasn't aware of Bergdahl's mental health history, including his psychological discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard and that an Army psychiatric board had concluded that Bergdahl possessed a "severe mental defect." Silvino also told Rosenblatt he didn't know about Bergdahl's mental health issues.
Billings and Silvino said Bergdahl had been a model soldier and they weren't aware of Bergdahl's mental health history, including his psychological discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard and that an Army psychiatric board had concluded that Bergdahl possessed a "severe mental defect."
Bergdahl, wearing his blue and black dress uniform spent much of Thursday's hearing taking notes and conferring with his attorneys.
The Article 32 hearing will result in a report that will be forwarded to Gen. Robert Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command. Abrams will decide whether the case should be referred to a court-martial or is resolved in another manner.
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