The sentencing hearing begins Monday at Fort Bragg, N.C., for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has pleaded guilty to desertion and says the Taliban who captured him treated him better than the U.S. Army.
“At least the Taliban were honest enough to say, ‘I’m the guy who’s gonna cut your throat,’ ” Bergdahl, 31, told British journalist Sean Langan for a story published in The Sunday Times of London. "Here, it could be the guy I pass in the corridor who’s going to sign the paper that sends me away for life."
Bergdahl pleaded guilty last week to one count of "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" and one count of "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place." He could face life in prison for his crimes.
Former Army corporal Jonathan Morita is among the service members who could testify at the hearing. A rocket-propelled grenade shattered Morita's right hand during a search mission for Bergdahl, and the thumb and index finger remain damaged.
Morita told the Associated Press he wasn't sure how he felt about Bergdahl's admission of guilt.
"Did he really mean it, or did the defense tell him to say it?" Morita said.
Bergdahl was stationed in Afghanistan when he walked away from his post in June 2009. The Idaho native was soon captured by the ruthless, Taliban-aligned Haqqani network and held for almost five years before a controversial prisoner exchange that freed him in May 2014.
President Obama signed off on the deal in exchange for the release of five prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Obama cited the military mantra that no soldier be left behind. But the deal drew intense criticism from Republicans and others who said Bergdahl jeopardized the lives of the soldiers sent to find him.
In 2015, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would hold hearings on the case if the Army didn't impose punishment. President Trump called Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" and tweeted in March 2015 that he "should face the death penalty for desertion — five brave soldiers died trying to bring him back. U.S. has to get tough!"
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should face the death penalty for desertion - five brave soldiers died trying to bring him back. U.S. has to get tough!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 26, 2015
Then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel has said no deaths were directly connected to the search for Bergdahl, although multiple soldiers were wounded. Among them were Morita and Army National Guard Master Sgt. Mark Allen, who was shot in the helmet during a firefight. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and remains in a wheelchair, unable to speak.
Bergdahl initially said he left his post because he had concerns about his command's leadership and wanted to expose the weaknesses to top leaders. He said he was kept in a cage and tortured during captivity and tried to escape several times.
Bergahl told the Sunday Times that he dismissed Trump's attacks as the words of a politician.
"I can’t convince the people who say, ‘Just string him up and shoot him.’ So you just move on," Bergdahl said.
He acknowledged that being called a traitor was offensive.
"You know, it’s just insulting frankly," Bergdahl said. "The idea that they would think I did that."
Bergdahl had earlier revealed some of the details of his experience on the podcast Serial, which obtained hours of interviews the soldier conducted with filmmaker Mark Boal. Bergdahl said he realized that abandoning his post was a mistake, then concocted a plan to redeem himself by trying to stalk Taliban insurgents.
"Doing what I did is me saying that I am like, I don't know, Jason Bourne," he said.
Instead, his capture was costly to his fellow soldiers and his country. He told the Sunday Times that after a time in captivity, he determined he would either die a hostage or die trying to escape.
"Either way I was a dead man,” he said. "It wasn’t a case of being scared of dying. It was a case of embracing the fact that I was a dead man.”
Contributing: Jim Michaels