MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In 2009 Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost in Afghanistan. A frantic manhunt followed. Bergdahl had been captured by the Taliban, who held him for five years. He was freed under a controversial Obama-era prisoner swap. Today Bowe Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Rich Oppel of The New York Times has been covering this story for years and joins us now from North Carolina where Bergdahl appeared in court today. Richard, welcome.
RICH OPPEL: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So it has been a while since Bergdahl has been in the news. So start by reminding us what his story has been, why he says he left his post back in 2009.
OPPEL: So he told the Army's chief investigator that he left because he had serious concerns about the welfare of the - of his unit and particularly of some problems he believed that existed with the leadership. And so what he intended to do, he said, is leave the base and walk about 18 miles to a larger base where he wanted to get an audience with a senior officer to talk about the problems that he perceived were happening in his unit.
KELLY: And he's told this story consistently in the year since his release.
OPPEL: That's right.
KELLY: So what do we make then of today? Were you surprised by this guilty plea?
OPPEL: Not after the string of defeats that he had had this year where the judge had consistently ruled against them in quite a few things. You know, the one thing that was interesting on this point was he went out of his way several times to say that he never intended for there to be a large manhunt like there was after he left, but he had previously said he did want to kind of create a big stir in leaving so he could get this audience with a general. But it's interesting today that he went out of his way to say, I never wanted to have, you know, a really big - a big manhunt or anything like it.
KELLY: The accusations that he made about mismanagement within his unit - those have been investigated. Was there anything to them?
OPPEL: Well, both the Army's chief investigating officer, Lieutenant General Kenneth Dahl, as well as the - Lieutenant Colonel Mark Visger, who was the preliminary hearing officer - they didn't find any substantiation for what he was talking about. But again, General Dahl, you know, in his testimony said his view was it wasn't that Bergdahl was lying. It was just that he was wrong. But he really did believe that there was a problem that he needed to talk to a more senior officer about.
KELLY: Let me ask you about a couple things which - I wonder how they might play as we move into the sentencing phase here. One is, Bergdahl's attorney has said he was suffering from mental health issues when he walked away from his post. Might that be something the judge takes into account?
OPPEL: Well, certainly the defense would like him to take it into account. The Army was not his first enlistment. He had actually gone into the Coast Guard in 2006, but he had washed out of basic training in a couple of weeks. And there were some mental health issues cited at that time. So in addition to that, he was later diagnosed with having a severe personality disorder at the time of his leaving the base in Afghanistan.
KELLY: The other factor I'm curious about is - we mentioned Bergdahl was held by the Taliban for five years in what apparently were horrendous conditions. Will his years in captivity be factored in at his sentencing?
OPPEL: Well, certainly that's absolutely something the defense is hoping for. You know, at the preliminary hearing, again, you know, we had one of the country's leading debriefers of hostages testify for the defense, even though he's a government official, that Bergdahl had suffered the worst abuse that any serviceman had suffered since the Vietnam War and at one point even broke down, talking about how awful the abuse was - the beatings with rubber hoses and copper cables and being locked in a cage and all of that.
KELLY: Yeah. The - I understand Bergdahl's case manager at the Army says he's going to require a lifetime of medical care whatever happens...
KELLY: ...Going forward. Rich Oppel of The New York Times, thank you.
OPPEL: Thanks, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Rich Oppel's been covering the court martial of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.
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