ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Those hoping to influence the fate of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl began to take the stand in court today. Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for abandoning his post in Afghanistan in 2009. He says he left with hopes of reporting leadership problems to his senior officer on another base, but on his way, he was kidnapped and held captive for five years by the Taliban affiliated Haqqani network. Bergdahl was released in a controversial prisoner exchange. He was traded for five Taliban prisoners.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Testimonies from both the defense and prosecution will be heard this week as the judge considers Bergdahl's sentence. He faces up to life in prison. NPR's Greg Myre is at Fort Bragg in North Carolina covering the sentencing hearing, and he joins me now. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So the first testimony today came from someone brought in by the prosecution, Navy SEAL James Hatch. What story did he tell on the stand today?
MYRE: He had a very dramatic story to tell. He led a rescue mission for Bergdahl just nine days after he vanished from his outpost in southeastern Afghanistan. And when Hatch was told what his job would be, to go rescue Bergdahl, he said out loud someone is going to get killed or hurt trying to get this kid. Now, Hatch and his team, they set out on two helicopters, and they came under fire even before they touched down. So it was an extremely treacherous operation. As they were advancing, Hatch got shot in the right leg just above the knee. He said, I was screaming a lot. I was worse than useless. I was a hazard to the guys around me because he was potentially giving away their position.
They had a dog that was working with them. He was shot and killed. And Hatch, who gave very composed testimony, actually teared up at that point as he recounted this dog being shot. Hatch and the dog were medevacked out by helicopter, but Hatch eventually needed 18 surgeries, and this ended a 26-year military career. He still walks with a pronounced limp, and he walked to and from the witness stand with a large black service dog.
CHANG: Well, aside from Hatch, how many other service members were injured looking for Bergdahl?
MYRE: The judge in the case says at least two others were injured as a direct result of these searches for Bergdahl. And we may hear from at least one of them, but we also heard from Captain John Billings. He was Bergdahl's platoon leader, and he said Bergdahl had only been there for 40 days in Afghanistan when he walked off his post. And then they spent the next several weeks very focused on looking for Bergdahl.
He described the conditions as miserable. They were constantly being redirected by superior officers. They were moving around constantly, sleeping on the ground, wearing the same clothes for days and days at a time. Everyone was getting sick from poor food and water. And when asked how widespread this search was, he said, quote, "everyone in Afghanistan was looking for Bergdahl. We leave no man behind - period."
CHANG: Well, I want to also talk about the defense's request to dismiss this whole case entirely. Can you just remind us, what has been their argument for why this case should be totally dismissed?
MYRE: Trump, the candidate, was a harsh critic of Bergdahl, calling him a dirty, rotten traitor. And last week, he said I think people know how I feel about it. The defense is saying this amounts to improper influence by the commander in chief on a legal proceeding.
CHANG: So then what happens from here after - let's assume that the judge will proceed and continue the sentencing hearing and not dismiss the case, what do we look for?
MYRE: We're expecting several more days of testimony. The prosecution didn't finish with their witnesses today, and Bergdahl could speak. I mean, he's spoken out. He's done a podcast. He's spoken out in other formats. So it's quite possible we'll hear from him. We're not sure. That would be a bid for leniency. He could talk about the torture he says he suffered as a prisoner. He is in court. He was in his navy blue Army uniform today. We can only see him from behind. There's not any sign of any reaction from him, but he's there, and he could speak.
CHANG: All right. That was NPR's Greg Myre speaking to us from Fort Bragg in North Carolina where he's covering the sentencing hearing for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Thanks, Greg.
MYRE: Thank you, Ailsa.
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