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Military on verge of sentencing Bergdahl for desertion

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban for half a decade after abandoning his Afghanistan post, is in the middle of a sentencing hearing for his guilty plea to desertion, which prosecutors say injured and killed U.S. soldiers who searched for him. NPR reporter Greg Myre, who has been covering the case in military court at Fort Bragg, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2014 President Barack Obama swapped five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban inside Afghanistan for five years. Mr. Obama did not grant Bergdahl clemency for what some military officials considered Bergdahl’s crime, desertion. That’s because the Taliban captured Bergdahl in 2009 only after he abandoned his post. In the resulting search for him, fellow soldiers came under fire and several were seriously wounded. On the campaign trail. Candidate Donald Trump called Bergdahl a traitor. And this year Bergdahl underwent a court martial proceeding. Bergdahl pleaded guilty and now at Fort Bragg North Carolina, he’s undergoing a military justice hearing to determine his punishment which could be a life sentence. National Public Radio reporter Greg Myre is covering the case and joins me now from Washington.

    So this is now the sort of prosecution phase, if you will. What’s the government’s case?

  • Greg Myre:

    Well, their case is Bergdahl’s disappearance and his capture by the Taliban led to this enormous urgent effort to try to find him and we got to we certainly got the flavor of that this week in the testimony as we heard for soldiers that searched for him and indeed two who were wounded as part of that search. Both were were shot. So this certainly gave us a sense of how intense the effort was after he disappeared. And that indeed this, this put American soldiers at a much greater risk in a very dangerous part of Afghanistan and therefore the punishment for Bergdahl should be quite severe in the prosecution’s view.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As these soldiers were going out did they know the backstory or whether he had deserted? Did they know the kind of risk that they were taking for this soldier?

    GREG MYRE: They certainly did and we saw that in a number of ways. One of those who testified was a Navy SEAL, James Hatch and he testified that he said out loud after he learned that he would go on a mission to try to find Bergdahl, he said, someone is going to get killed or hurt looking for this kid. They also showed a video that one of the soldiers made as they were walking out and he sort of says sarcastically in the video, doing all this just because some dude walked off and we heard about days and days of sleeping in the ground, being sent in different directions. In this 100-degree summer heat of Afghanistan, intense prolonged missions that were different from the other kinds of missions they had been doing before his disappearance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right so what’s his defense going to be? There are going to be a couple more witnesses on the military side. What are Bowe Bergdahl’s lawyers going to say?

  • Greg Myre:

    Well, given from what they’ve said so far, we think they’ll they’ll point out that he spent five years in the custody of the Taliban and their ally, the Haqqani network, under incredibly harsh conditions. Bergdahl has talked about this himself, that he was kept in a cage much of that time, he was chained, he was beaten, he tried to escape, that there was incredibly harsh punishment there, that he was not defecting as some had had talked about while he was missing but in fact he was walking off his post to find a more senior officer to complain about things that he felt were not being done properly in his unit. So that, it was a completely misguided effort on his part, but there was no malice, he was not trying to harm his fellow troops in any way or or join the Taliban.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the statements of then-candidate and now Commander in Chief Trump?

  • Greg Myre:

    This has become an issue in the case. Bergdahl’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case in the beginning of this year when Trump took office because there is this military principle known as unlawful command influence and it, quite simply it means a military commander can’t influence or even give the appearance of influencing a legal case. The military takes it very seriously. The judge tossed that aside but just two weeks ago, Trump said, I can’t comment but I think you know how I feel, you think people heard what I said before. So Bergdahl’s lawyers have brought this up again asking for a dismissal or perhaps factoring this into the sentencing. The judge is is considering it. He hasn’t made his decision yet. He said he will, but it’s it’s a very important principle that commanders cannot even be seen as giving the impression or appearance of trying to influence the case.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Greg Meyer of National Public Radio joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

  • Greg Myre:

    Thank you.

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