FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A former soldier permanently injured during a mission in eastern Afghanistan to collect information about missing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl testified Thursday that he did not expect to survive the operation.
Jonathan Morita, then an Army specialist, was struck in the hand by a rocket-propelled grenade on the second morning of a mission to march through southern Paktika province to speak with tribal elders who might have known where the Taliban was holding Bergdahl about a week after he had walked off nearby Observation Post Mest without permission.
The RPG, which did not explode, shattered Morita’s M4 carbine, split three fingers on his right hand and left his thumb dangling by a thread of skin.
“I thought I was going to definitely die in Afghanistan,” said Morita, who glared toward the former Taliban captive as he exited the Fort Bragg courtroom.
Morita’s testimony opened the second day of a sentence hearing in the court-martial of Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, admitting he unlawfully left his post, endangering his fellow troops. The judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, is expected to sentence Bergdahl next week following additional testimony that will resume Monday.
Prosecutors on Thursday shifted the focus of their case against Bergdahl to the single, hastily-planned mission that left Morita’s hand permanently mangled and another soldier, retired Master Sgt. Mark Allen, paralyzed and unable to communicate when he was shot through the head.
The mission was difficult from its outset, testified four current and former servicemembers involved in the operation that began July 8, 2009, eight days after Bergdahl disappeared.
The group of five American soldiers, an U.S. Air Force captain and some 50 Afghan troops, ran out of food and water by the end of their first day and on four occasions were unable to be resupplied. Morita was left with heat-stroke and had to be rehydrated intravenously.
Early the second morning, soldiers were awakened to the sound of motorcycles with riders who were flying a Taliban flag.
“Shortly thereafter … that’s when all hell broke out,” said Air Force Lt. Col. John Marx, then a captain charged with leading the team on the operation.
Marx described a chaotic gunfight as Taliban fighters moved in on their position along a berm just outside a small village. That’s when Allen, as he was grabbing the radio to report the attack to headquarters, was hit.
“I turned to [Allen] as he was shot between the temples in the head,” Marx testified, raising his index ringers to his own temples and pausing. “… I thought he was dead at that point in time.”
The injuries to Allen, Morita, and a former Navy SEAL, retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch, on a separate mission to find Bergdahl, could be the strongest evidence prosecutors present to show the impact of Bergdahl’s desertion and misbehavior. Allen’s wife, Shannon Allen, is expected to testify about rehabilitation efforts for her husband and what their quality of life has been since the mission.
Prosecution witnesses on Wednesday described widespread efforts to recover Bergdahl in eastern Afghanistan as the military flooded assets into the region and commanders took on greater risk as they pushed thousands of troops into the field to find him.
Defense attorneys next week are expected to call witnesses to testify about Bergdahl’s documented mental health conditions and the horrible conditions that he faced through five years captivity in Pakistan where he was held by Taliban-linked militants.
Bergdahl said during his plea hearing Oct. 16 that he walked off his post on June 30, 2009 in an attempt to reach a nearby base to complain about problems that he perceived within his chain of command. He said his actions were “inexcusable,” as he entered a guilty plea without any pre-trial agreement with the Army to cap his potential sentence.
Just hours after he left his post, Bergdahl was kidnapped by Taliban fighters and eventually moved into Pakistan where was held until his release in May 2014 in a controversial prisoner swap for five Taliban commanders who had been held in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The Army in March 2015 charged Bergdahl with “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place” and “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty” following an extensive investigation.
Bergdahl, who has remained on active duty since he was released, serving in a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas and has not been held in pretrial confinement.
Defense attorneys want Bergdahl’s potential sentence limited to no punishment or at least no confinement, citing President Donald Trump’s recent apparent endorsement of his own disparaging campaign trail comments about the soldier.
They argued to Nance that Trump’s acknowledgement of his past statements last week to reporters at the White House could hurt public perception that Army officials including the judge — an active-duty Army officer under Trump’s command — might be influenced by the president’s rhetoric. Bergdahl’s lawyers have documented some 60 times when Trump mentioned the soldier on the campaign trail, which included calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” who should be shot and promising to review the case if he is elected president and the soldier goes unpunished.
Nance has yet to rule on the defense motion. He’s expected to make a decision before he sentences Bergdahl.
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