SAN ANTONIO, Texas (September 19, 2015) — The Army general who led the investigation into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s actions in Afghanistan testified Friday that jail time would be “inappropriate” for the soldier captured and held five years by the Taliban.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl said he interviewed Bowe for a day and a half and “did not find any evidence to corroborate the reporting that Bergdahl was … sympathetic to the Taliban.”
Instead, Dahl said, Bergdahl wanted to call attention to what he considered poor leadership of his unit. Bergdal believed that by leaving his observation post and running 23 kilometers (about 14 miles) to a nearby base he could cause a stir and gain access to a high-ranking officer to complain, Dahl said.
Dahl testified at an Army Article 32 preliminary hearing held to determine whether Bergdahl will face a court-martial. If his case goes to court-martial and he is found guilty, Bergdahl faces a potential maximum penalty of life in prison.
Bergdahl will not testify, defense attorney Eugene Fidell told the military court at Joint Base San Antonio.
Bergdahl vanished in June 2009 after deserting his unit, authorities said.
The incident set off a series of events that included his five-year capture by the Taliban. President Barack Obama later freed five members of the terror network held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl last year.
As part of the controversial prisoner swap, Bergdahl returned to the United States. In March, the military charged him with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
‘Unrealistic expectations of people’
Dahl testified that he thought Bergdahl was “very bright and well-read.”
When asked what in Bergdahl’s background might have caused his behavior in the military, Dahl said that the combination of growing up in rural Idaho on the “edge of the grid … being home-schooled” and the fact that he “internalized a lot of what he read” resulted in him having “idealistic and unrealistic expectations of people.”
Though Bergdahl was not duty-bound to comply with the investigation, he did and submitted to a day and a half interview. Bergdahl did exercise his right to silence at the start of the interview, Dahl said.
Dahl said he didn’t “believe there is a jail sentence at the end of this process.”
The last witness from the Bergdhahl defense team was Terrence Russell, a civilian who works for the Department of Defense Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. Russell debriefed Bergdahl.
Russell said Bergdahl experienced “horrific” conditions and that his “experience ranks in the same echelon of horrible conditions that we have not seen in 60 years,” referring to troops held in Vietnam.
He described Bergdhahl as “an army of one, he had to fight the enemy alone for 4 years 11 months. You cannot overestimate how difficult that is. ”
The hearing began Thursday, when government prosecutors called witnesses who represented Bergdahl’s chain of command.
His former platoon leader, Capt. John Paul Billings, recounted soldiers awakening him early to say Bergdahl was missing.
“I didn’t really know what to say. I was in shock, in absolute disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my own men. It’s a hard thing to swallow,” Billings said, adding that a squad immediately went out to look for him.
On cross-examination, Billings said Bergdahl appeared to be completely normal the day before he disappeared, that he had been dedicated to the mission and had an outstanding record of performance.
The defense asked the platoon leader whether he had been made aware that Bergdahl had a psychological discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard, or that Bergdahl “possessed a severe mental disease or defect?”
Billings said he would have recommended Bergdahl to specialist care if he had known of any such mental issue.
During the hearing, Berghdahl sat at a long table with his civilian and military defense attorneys. He spent much of the proceedings looking down as he took notes on a pad in his lap.
Prisoner swap criticized
Some in the military and those who fought alongside Bergdahl in Afghanistan blasted the prisoner swap deal.
Obama has hailed Bergdahl’s safe return to the United States.
“Sgt. Bergdahl has missed birthdays and holidays and the simple moments with family and friends,” the President said when the soldier returned.
A court-martial would put the White House in a precarious situation. It has steadfastly defended the decision to recover Bergdahl amid backlash from Republicans and some who served with him in Afghanistan.
At the time of his recovery, U.S. officials said Obama’s national security team was unanimous in its support of the prisoner exchange that ultimately returned Bergdahl to the United States.
Concerns about his physical health prompted them to circumvent a requirement to notify Congress about pending prisoner releases, authorities said at the time.
Obama cited a “sacred rule” in attempting to rescue American servicemen and -women, no matter the circumstances surrounding their capture.
“We still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” he said at the time.
Some members of Bergdahl’s unit have accused him of purposely abandoning his post before being captured in remote Afghanistan. Some suggested the U.S. effort to rescue him was misguided.
Allegations that he abandoned his post were well-known before his rescue became public, though they hadn’t yet been subject to the type of Army investigation that followed his return.
The White House has expressed no regret at the decision to swap the Idaho native with Taliban prisoners.