Witnesses in Bergdahl sentencing hearing emotionally recount rescue attempts

PHOTO: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arrives at the Fort Bragg courthouse for a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, on Fort Bragg, N.C.PlayAndrew Craft/The Fayetteville Observer via AP
WATCH Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's comrades recount their stories in military trial

A military judge presiding over the sentencing of Bowe Bergdahl heard from two prosecution witnesses Wednesday morning who described the aftermath of the Army sergeant's disappearance and the efforts to rescue him during his five years in Taliban captivity.

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Bergdahl pleaded guilty last week to charges of desertion with intention to shirk duty and misbehavior before the enemy after he left his base in Afghanistan in 2009. His capture and imprisonment by the Taliban and his subsequent negotiated release by the Obama administration as part of a prisoner exchange made international headlines and drew partisan condemnation.

Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer James Hatch, who was a part of a special warfare unit involved in a rescue operation, testified that there was no hesitation among those tasked with retrieving Bergdahl, but that he recognized that multiple service members were being put in harm's way to rescue just one.

"I said, 'Hey man, someone's going to get killed or hurt trying to get this kid,'" Hatch said Wednesday, adding, "Everyone on that mission was aware he walked off."

Despite that knowledge, the Naval officer, who was wounded in the leg during one of the rescue operations and required 18 subsequent procedures, felt a sense of duty to the mission because Bergdahl is "an American" and "he had a mom."

With his service dog at his side, Hatch further explained that an additional level of caution had to be taken because the unit didn't want "to kill the guy you were trying to save."

He became tearful as he described another soldier's dog that was killed as it was sent ahead of his group to confront the enemy.

An additional witness for the prosecution, Captain John Billings, Bergdahl's platoon leader in Afghanistan, explained that when he was told that the sergeant was missing from Combat Outpost Mest-Malak in Paktika province in Afghanistan, he thought "they are playing a joke on me."

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation, the soldiers began to search for Bergdahl. Those efforts, Billings said, increased the physical stress on the involved soldiers.

PHOTO: Sgt. Bowe Bergdahls military attorney, Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt, and his civilian attorney, Eugene Fidell, arrive at the Fort Bragg courthouse for a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, on Fort Bragg, N.C. Andrew Craft/The Fayetteville Observer via AP
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's military attorney, Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt, and his civilian attorney, Eugene Fidell, arrive at the Fort Bragg courthouse for a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, on Fort Bragg, N.C.

"Everyone in Afghanistan was looking for Bowe," said Billings, later adding, "We leave no man behind."

In June, prosecution attorneys argued for the ability to present Hatch as a witness after Judge Col. Jeffery Nance limited such testimony during the trial phase of the proceedings because he felt it would influence the jury unfairly.

The sentencing hearings have received additional scrutiny due to Bergdahl's insistence that he would not receive a fair trial given statements made about him by President Donald Trump. Trump publicly labeled Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" and a "bum" who should be executed for his actions.

"We may as well go back to kangaroo courts and lynch mobs that got what they wanted," Bergdahl said in a video recorded last year later obtained by ABC News. "The people who want to hang me — you're never going to convince those people."

In a 2015 interview with the podcast "Serial," Bergdahl admitted to leaving his outpost in order to hike 18 miles to a nearby base where he intended to report his concerns about leadership at Combat Outpost Mest-Malak. He returned to the U.S. in 2014 upon which an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his disappearance led to charges.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.