A Navy SEAL testified Wednesday in Fort Bragg, N.C., that he was shot and badly injured during a heavy firefight while searching for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after Bergdahl walked off his combat outpost in Afghanistan.
The military judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, is allowing the testimony of three service members whose injuries are considered a direct result of the searches for Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and held for five years. He has pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
The Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch, was forced to retire from the military after nearly 26 years of service because of the injuries sustained while searching for Bergdahl. He testified that he underwent 18 operations in the years that followed.
On Wednesday, he walked to the witness stand with a heavy limp, accompanied by a black service dog.
Hatch said that before Bergdahl went missing, the unit's mission was capturing and killing high-value targets. Members of the unit got word that they were going to focus on rescuing Bergdahl.
"Someone is going to get killed or hurt trying to get this kid," Hatch recalled saying.
Nine days after Bergdahl's 2009 disappearance, Hatch led a team with two helicopters on a mission into Afghanistan's Paktika province. He said the team was taking heavy fire even before they landed.
As they began advancing to the position where they believed Bergdahl was held, he said, a trained dog with them lunged after three figures, who turned out to be children.
Shortly afterward, the dog was shot in the head and killed, he said. Hatch spoke in formal, controlled language, with his voice only wavering when he spoke about the dog.
Hatch was then shot in his right leg, just above the knee. He described screaming in pain and worrying that he was endangering fellow troops. "I really thought I was going to die," he said. The Navy SEAL was then airlifted out.
"Everyone on that mission was aware [Bergdahl] walked off," Hatch said. When asked why they went after him, Hatch responded: "Because he's an American."
Another witness, Capt. John Billings, was Bergdahl's platoon leader and described the searches immediately after Bergdahl went missing.
"The next 10 days were just kind of a blur," he said. "Everybody in Afghanistan was looking for Bergdahl."
On Monday, the military judge probed whether recent comments by President Trump could challenge the fairness of the legal proceedings. As we reported:
"Under the military justice system, it's unlawful for commanders to influence legal cases, or even give the appearance of influence. That principle covers the president as commander-in-chief.
"Bergdahl, who spent five years in Taliban captivity, was a frequent target for Trump when he was a candidate. Trump suggested in 2015 that Bergdahl 'should be shot,' as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reported.
"In previous filings, lawyers for Bergdahl cited at least 45 instances where candidate Trump called their client a traitor."
On Monday, Trump said: "I can't comment on Bowe Bergdahl. ... But I think people have heard my comments in the past."
Nance said at the beginning of Wednesday's hearing that he hasn't decided whether these comments constitute undue influence and would rule at a later point. The defense wants a motion to dismiss the whole case. The judge's decision on this could factor into Bergdahl's sentence.
Nance has broad discretion in determining that sentence — he could sentence Bergdahl to life in prison or he could let him walk out of court a free man, saying in a sense that the five years he spent in Taliban captivity is punishment enough.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.