“I’m admitting I made a horrible mistake,” the sergeant said on the witness stand. “It was never my intention for anyone to be hurt, and I never expected that to happen.”
As a candidate, Mr. Trump repeatedly called Sergeant Bergdahl a traitor and suggested that he should be executed or returned to the Taliban. On Oct. 16, Mr. Trump seemed to endorse those earlier sentiments, declining to say anything new about the case but adding, “I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
An Army investigator initially recommended that there be no jail time for Sergeant Bergdahl, who was held and tortured by the Taliban for five years. But anger — on the part of politicians and members of the military — over the sergeant’s actions may have contributed to the fact that he now faces the possibility of a long sentence.
In sentencing, mitigating factors weigh in favor of leniency while aggravating factors tip the scales toward harsher punishment. The judge’s decision means he will weigh Mr. Trump’s comments along with other mitigating factors presented by the defense, including evidence that Sergeant Bergdahl had a severe mental disorder and suffered torture in captivity.
Colonel Nance will also consider aggravating factors presented by the prosecution, including injuries suffered by several service members during the search for Sergeant Bergdahl, as well as the negative impact they say the search had on the military’s overall war effort in Afghanistan.
Anger over the injuries has driven much of the testimony in the case so far, as service members vividly described a rescue operation that exposed them to enemy fire. Sharon Allen, the wife of Sgt. First Class Mark Allen, who was shot in the head took the stand on Monday.
Sergeant Allen, a national guardsman from Georgia, had part of his brain removed during surgery, and is now unable to speak, walk, or take care of himself. His wife has said little publicly, but in a Facebook post after Sergeant Bergdahl was freed, she blamed him for causing her husband’s incapacitation.
“Instead of being his wife, I have become his caregiver,” Ms. Allen testified.
Last week, Staff Sgt. Jason Walters testified that his six-man team had only just arrived in Afghanistan when they were sent to search for Sergeant Bergdahl. They had little time to prepare for the rugged terrain of Paktika Province, and little intelligence to go on.
On the second morning of the search, “an insane amount of fire came out of nowhere,” Sergeant Walters said. Militants had them surrounded. In minutes, half the team had been wounded. Sergeant Walters turned to see “a cloud of blood” spraying from the head of Sergeant Allen.
“I started treating his wounds, talking to him, telling him to hang on,” Sergeant Walters said.
The battle subsided only after F-15 fighter jets and Apache helicopters arrived overhead.
Only later would the troops learn that the battalion responsible for the area believed that 150 Taliban fighters were near the village where the soldiers were resting when they came under fire.
“My words can’t take away what people have been through,” Sergeant Bergdahl told the court on Monday. “Offering condolences is not enough. People went through things they shouldn’t have had to go through. I grieve for those who have suffered and their families.”
The Army’s investigation of the rescue operation described faults with its planning, preparation, equipment and intelligence. Sergeant Bergdahl’s defense team has also argued to the judge that the Taliban — not their client — were directly responsible for Sergeant Allen’s wounds.
Prosecutors have sought to show that the attack would have played out similarly even without the problems cited. Increased risks were acceptable, they say, if the missing soldier was thought to be near.
But in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the investigation showed, some of Sergeant Allen’s comrades were upset with the officers who ordered the operation.
“We should have never went out there in the first place, and we would not have lost three of our guys in the process,” said Staff Sgt. Travis Scott Elmore, referring to the wounded. He was one of the six-member Embedded Training Team, or E.T.T. He had been told only afterward that the battalion responsible for that area believed there were 150 Taliban fighters nearby.
“We didn’t have the manpower, and that was the first mission that our E.T.T. team has ever conducted” with Afghan troops, he said in a sworn statement to Army investigators.
Sergeant Walters suggested that commanders never would have sent their own men from the battalion on such a high-risk patrol.
“They treat us like a redheaded stepchild whose only purpose there is to be used at their convenience and for the missions they don’t want to risk their own men on,” he wrote in his statement.
In court, Sergeant Bergdahl gave details about his captivity, saying that he had once used a nail sharpened with a rock to pick the locks on his shackles and escape. He had planned to subsist on grass, he said, but because the area was heavily populated by herds of sheep and goats there was little available.
He fell off a cliff into a dry riverbed, he said. By the end of eight days, he would “blackout and fall over” when he tried to stand up.
When he was recaptured, the Taliban beat him and placed him in a cage that would be his home for the next four years, he said.
Another search for Sergeant Bergdahl, this one at night, was recounted last week by Jimmy Hatch, who was a Senior Chief Petty Officer and member of a Navy SEAL special operations team. After helicopters dropped off his team, Chief Hatch sent his military working dog after two people he suspected were enemy fighters. One shot the dog in the head. The other sprayed his gun wildly.
The muzzle flashes allowed American troops to locate and kill the fighters — but not before one shot Chief Hatch, shattering his thighbone, he said. He would later have 18 surgical procedures, and still walks with a pronounced limp.
“I was worse than useless,” Chief Hatch said, recalling his fear that his screams might endanger fellow troops.
Specialist Jonathan Morita, whose finger bones shattered when an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade struck his hand, has regained only limited use of his hand.
Specialist Morita testified that he suffers from a short temper because of his experience. He said his anger is directed “toward one person.”
He did not name names. But as he left the witness stand and walked past the defense table, he shot Sergeant Bergdahl a withering glare.
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