Defense in Bowe Bergdahl Army desertion hearing suggests he was mentally ill

New details about the disappearance of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl emerged Thursday at a hearing to decide whether he will face a court-martial on desertion charges, with prosecutors arguing that Bergdahl plotted to abandon his post in Afghanistan, putting fellow soldiers at risk, while the defense suggested Bergdahl suffered from a “severe mental disease or defect.”

Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing at the Army’s Joint Base San Antonio-Ft. Sam Houston could take days as both sides present evidence, call and cross-examine witnesses.

Bergdahl, 29, of Hailey, Idaho, appeared at the hearing in his dress uniform with a crew cut, occasionally clenching his jaw, sipping water, taking notes and consulting his attorneys but otherwise calm. He spoke briefly at the start of the hearing, acknowledging that he knew his rights when questioned by the presiding officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger.

Visger, who is also a judge advocate corps lawyer, will ultimately decide whether the sergeant faces a court-martial.

As a private, Bergdahl vanished on June 30, 2009, purportedly walking away from his unit after expressing misgivings about its mission. He was captured by the Taliban and held for nearly five years by members of the militant Haqqani network.

Last year, President Obama agreed to free Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners, a controversial swap that the administration defended even after the military announced that Bergdahl would be charged with desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy.” If he is convicted of the more serous misbehavior charge, Bergdahl faces a potential life sentence.

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The lead prosecutor, Maj. Margaret Kurz, opened Thursday by insisting that Bergdahl, disgruntled, acted with “deliberate disregard when he left his post” and “snuck out … intending to draw attention to himself so he could have a personal audience with the general.”

“He left deliberately, knowingly,” Kurz said, and with a plan that took weeks to prepare: mailing his Kindle and laptop home, attempting to have his pay diverted to a relative, packing local clothing as a disguise, leaving his gun and other belongings on his cot.

Bergdahl’s lead defense attorney Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School, has appealed to Army officials to release a summary of the investigation by Maj. Gen. Kenneth R. Dahl into Bergdahl’s disappearance, as well as Dahl's interview with Bergdahl. (Dahl is scheduled to testify.)

On Thursday, Fidell offered Visger a single-sentence opening statement: “The government should make Sgt. Bergdahl’s statement available to the public, not just to you.”

The first of the prosecution's three witnesses to testify, Bergdahl's platoon leader, Capt. John Billings, initially recalled him as a “great soldier by all accounts.”

A member of Bergdahl’s defense team, Maj. Franklin D. Rosenblatt, suggested that Bergdahl wanted to go after the Taliban more aggressively. “You remember Sgt. Bergdahl being frustrated with the mission, wanting to kick in doors and pursue the Taliban?” Rosenblatt asked Billings.

Rosenblatt added that Bergdahl “wanted to go after the guys planting IEDs.”

Billings appeared to agree.

“His image of what he would be doing was not necessarily what it was” in Afghanistan, he said.

Rosenblatt noted that Bergdahl had washed out of Coast Guard basic training three years earlier because of psychological problems, and had to get a waiver to join the Army. An independent Army psychiatry board found that at the time he disappeared, Bergdahl suffered “severe mental disease or defect,” he said.

But Billings said he was unaware that Bergdahl had mental health problems. He said Bergdahl had no disciplinary record in Afghanistan, where his unit rotated between a base and the remote, spartan hilltop post where he disappeared near the Pakistan border.

Thousands of soldiers spent 45 days searching the area plagued by IEDs and insurgent ambushes, Billings and two other commanders testified. Billings said that although no troops died in the search, the process was emotionally and physically draining, especially as troops ran low on vital supplies during the summer heat.

“I was in absolute shock, utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my own men,” he recalled as Bergdahl watched, betraying no emotion. “I didn't know if it was something I did, something I failed to do.… I was defeated.”

Maj. Silvino Silvino, Bergdahl's company commander, said he was also surprised when the sergeant vanished. Asked by the defense whether another soldier had asked him about Bergdahl’s mental state, Silvino said, “I did not know.”

Silvino said the search took a toll on the troops. He had to temporarily remove a soldier whose platoon struck three IEDs in a day, causing no visible injuries but possible concussions. When soldiers returned from the search to refuel, exhausted and demoralized, Silvino tried to encourage them.

“I would tell them we’re doing what we’re doing because we need to get him back, he’s our brother,” he said of the company, known as Blackfoot.

But as the search stretched on, Silvino said, his company's reputation was tarnished and rumors spread, then persisted: “Don't be Blackfoot Company — they lose people.”

“There's a sting,” he said. “They talk about us. We have a mark.”

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4:56 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

11:55 a.m.: The story was updated with the opening of the hearing and testimony from the initial witness.

The story was originally published at 6:36 a.m.