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Tuesday 11 December 2018

Bowe Bergdahl says sorry to those hurt looking for him after Afghan desertion

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl faces a maximum sentence of life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy (AP Photo/Ted Richardson, File)
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl faces a maximum sentence of life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy (AP Photo/Ted Richardson, File)

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has apologised in court to the military personnel wounded searching for him and described the problems he still endures from his five years in Taliban captivity.

He was the first witness in the defence's presentation to the judge who will decide his punishment for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009.

He spoke for two hours, giving a wide-ranging description of his brutal years in captivity and what challenges he still faces with daily life.

"I would like everyone who searched for me to know it was never my intention for anyone to be hurt, and I never expected that to happen," he said, choking up at times.

" My words alone can't take away their pain."

Bergdahl faces a maximum of life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy.

His surprise appearance on the witness stand served as a dramatic counterpoint to several days of emotionally wrenching testimony by service members who were seriously wounded during a massive search effort.

He described the brutal conditions he faced, including beatings with copper wire and unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions.

He was kept in a cage for four out of the five years after several escape attempts, and his muscles atrophied to the point he could barely stand or walk.

Asked by a defence lawyer what the worst part of captivity was, he responded that it was not the beatings.

"The worst was the constant, just the constant deterioration of everything. The constant pain from my body falling apart. The constant screams from my mind," he said, haltingly.

"It was the years of waiting to see whether or not the next time someone opens the door if that would be the person coming to execute you."

Bergdahl said he still has nightmares that make it hard to sleep more than five hours. He checks his door at least three times to make sure it is secure each night and sleeps with a torch nearby.

He wakes up sometimes not remembering that he is back in the US, he said, and has daytime flashbacks to captivity arising from unpredictable triggers.

"It could be anything: A smell, perfume, damp earth, garbage," he said.

The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by President Barack Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Because Bergdahl's words in court were an unsworn statement, prosecutors will not be given the chance to cross-examine him.

His dramatic words came after an eventful morning in which the judge ruled that President Donald Trump's scathing criticism of Bergdahl will not prevent the soldier from receiving a fair sentence.

Mr Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor when he was on the campaign trial and suggested that he be shot or thrown from a plane without a parachute.

The judge, Colonel Jeffery R Nance, did say he would keep Mr Trump's comments in mind as he considers other factors that will go into his sentencing decision.

The hearing is expected to last several more days.

Following Mr Nance's ruling, prosecutors called their final witness, Shannon Allen, to discuss a traumatic brain injury suffered by her husband when he was shot in the head during a search mission for Bergdahl.

National Guard Master Sergeant Mark Allen was on a mission to gather information in two villages in July 2009 when his unit was ambushed by insurgents using small arms, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The soldier is unable to speak, uses a wheelchair and needs help with everyday tasks, his wife testified.

Shannon Allen's voice faltered when she referred to the brain injury's effect on his interactions with their daughter, who was an infant when he was wounded.

She is now nine and Mark Allen is in his mid-30s.

"He's not able to reach out for her or talk to her," she said, tearing up and pausing to take a deep breath.

"He's never had the chance to really play with her or help coach her sports or ask about her day."


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