Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's commanding officer said Thursday that his platoon was left "emotionally busted" by the physically and emotionally draining search for Bergdahl after he went missing from their post in Afghanistan six years ago.
Testifying at the outset of an Article 32 hearing to determine if Bergdahl should face a military trial on desertion and other charges, Capt. John Billings described the weeks of searching for the Idaho native, often on little food or sleep and in temperatures in the high 90s.
"Physically, mentally I was defeated," Billings said, adding that he felt like he had "failed" his men.
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Billings said he thought his men were joking when they told him on June 30, 2009, that Bergdahl had gone missing from their post in southeastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province.
Before disappearing, Bergdahl had expressed opposition to the war in general and misgivings about his own role in it. Military prosecutor Maj. Margaret Kurz said Thursday that Bergdahl had actually been planning for weeks to abandon the post and had emailed friends and family about his plans beforehand.
"Under the cover of darkness, he snuck off the post," Kurz told the officer presiding over the hearing, saying she thinks the evidence is sufficient to warrant a court-martial.
Bergdahl spent five years as a Taliban captive before being exchanged for five Taliban commanders being held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many Republicans and some Democrats have criticized the deal, saying it was politically motivated and violated the U.S. policy on not negotiating with terrorists.
Wearing his blue and black dress uniform, Bergdahl took notes throughout the hearing, which is taking place at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he has been stationed since returning to the U.S. last year. When asked by the presiding officer if he understood the charges, he said "Yes sir I do."
Before the hearing, which could last several days, legal experts said they expected Bergdahl's lawyers to argue that he suffered enough during his years in captivity.
His lead attorney, Eugene Fidell, has cited an Army investigation that determined Bergdahl left his post, but not the Army, and that his "specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer."
Fidell said he plans to call witnesses, but he declined to say whether Bergdahl would be among them or to disclose further details about his strategy.
While questioning Billings on Thursday, one of Bergdahl's attorneys asked if Billings knew about Bergdahl's mental health history, including his psychological discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard or that an Army psychiatric board had concluded that Bergdahl possessed "severe mental defect." Billings, who testified that Bergdahl was a "great soldier" who had never previously caused him problems, said he wasn't aware.
Officials say the Taliban captured Bergdahl after he left his post. After he was exchanged for the Taliban prisoners, military prosecutors charged him with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted of the misbehavior charge, he could face up to life in a military prison. He could also be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank and made to forfeit all pay.
Some members of Bergdahl's former unit have called for serious punishment, alleging that some service members died looking for him.
While the Pentagon has said there is no evidence anyone died searching for Bergdahl, legal experts say the misbehavior charge allows authorities to allege his actions put soldiers who searched for him in harm's way.
Fidell has expressed concern that negative publicity that has been highly critical of Bergdahl could influence how the case is resolved. At the hearing, he asked that copies of Bergdahl's interview with investigators be made public. Fidell wants the interview released to help counteract the negative publicity. No immediate action was taken on that request.
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.