RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, a hearing is underway to decide whether Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should face a court-martial. The charges - desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl went missing in June 2009 from his platoon in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. From San Antonio, NPR's Wade Goodwyn.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Capt. John Billings testified yesterday that when one of his soldiers woke him up in the early morning hours to tell him they couldn't find Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, he thought it was a prank. After a hard but successful deployment, the platoon was scheduled to rotate out of the forward observation post later that morning. The notion was ridiculous. The observation post was tiny, less than half a block, and the surrounding countryside was so full of hostels, there was nowhere for a soldier to go.
But it was no joke. Bergdahl was missing. And the next six weeks would prove to be some of the worst of Billings' and his men's lives as they tried to find their comrade. Prosecutors called to the stand, three of Bergdahl's superior officers. They described the exhaustive and exhausting effort as the Army desperately searched for Bergdahl. As days turned to weeks, morale among the men became a problem as they were angry that they were being asked to put their lives at risk for a soldier they'd come to believe had deserted.
It was the height of summer in the Afghan desert, triple digits by day and so cold at night, the men slept with their arms around one another out in the open. Underwear and T-shirts had to be airdropped as the clothes the men wore rotted on their bodies. As hope faded, anger was tempered by misery and widespread feelings of futility and failure took hold.
The prosecution testimony was focused on the second charge against Sgt. Bergdahl - misbehavior before the enemy. It is a very unusual accusation, and it carries the possibility of a life sentence. The legal definitions mostly center on acts of cowardice in the face of battle, like running away, throwing down or abandoning your weapon, quitting the fight to instead plunder and pillage. But there is part of the definition of the crime that could fit Bergdahl's behavior - disobedience, neglect or intentional misconduct that endangers the safety of a unit or a command.
The legal hurdle for prosecutors may be that Bergdahl's alleged desertion of his post didn't happen before the enemy in the heat of battle and the ensuing hardships and dangers his fellow soldiers suffered were less a direct consequence of Bergdahl's desertion than a subsequent decision by superior officers to conduct an exhaustive search for him. Still, it's a fine line between cause and effect. And for this hearing, prosecutors need only establish that there exists probable cause to bring charges against the wayward soldier. Tomorrow, Bowe Bergdahl's defense lawyers say they will call four witnesses. It's not known if the sergeant will be one of them. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Antonio.
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