FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Closing arguments about the punishment of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will come as soon as Thursday as a judge considers his sentence for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in Afghanistan.
The defense rested its sentencing case Wednesday after calling its final witness to discuss Bergdahl’s mental health. The prosecution could still call a rebuttal witness, but the judge told both sides to be ready to make their final cases for the appropriate punishment.
Bergdahl could spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to the charges. The military judge also could sentence him to no prison time, given mitigating factors including the five years he endured as an enemy captive. The judge has wide discretion because Bergdahl didn’t strike a plea agreement with prosecutors to limit his punishment.
A psychiatrist testified Wednesday that Bergdahl’s difficult childhood and his washout from Coast Guard boot camp stoked serious psychiatric disorders that helped spur him to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009.
Dr. Charles Morgan said the soldier was already suffering from a schizophrenia-like condition and post-traumatic stress disorder when he disappeared in Afghanistan.
The forensic psychiatrist said interviews with family and childhood friends, as well as a lengthy exam with Bergdahl, convinced him the soldier was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder when he disappeared in Afghanistan. He said he concurred with an Army Sanity Board document that previously made the diagnosis public.
On the stand, Morgan went into greater detail than previously disclosed about Bergdahl’s mental health. He said Bergdahl has an internal, self-critical commentary that he doesn’t recognize as his own thoughts. Bergdahl, he said, engages in fantasy and has thoughts of self-castration to purify himself.
Bergdahl and others with the disorder “have this experience of their own inner life as if it’s not them,” Morgan said. He said the internal commentary manifests in thoughts such as: “You’re never going to be good enough.”
However, Morgan said the commentary isn’t an auditory hallucination, and Bergdahl isn’t psychotic. He said Bergdahl knew right from wrong when he walked off his post.
Still, the disorder makes it difficult for Bergdahl to see the second- and third-order effects of his actions and how they will impact others, Morgan said.
Morgan believes Bergdahl had post-traumatic stress disorder before his 2008 Army enlistment, largely because of growing up with a quick-tempered father. Symptoms of anxiety and tunnel vision, sometimes present when he interacted with his father, occurred the night Bergdahl had a 2006 panic attack that caused his Coast Guard discharge, Morgan said.
Bergdahl’s father believed in corporal punishment and punched holes in the walls when he was angry, Morgan said. Growing up, Bergdahl would sometimes hide when he heard his father’s truck arriving at their house in Idaho.
Morgan’s testimony was part of defense efforts to mitigate potential punishment. Defense attorneys have made clear that Bergdahl is competent to answer the charges. The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, also said Wednesday that evidence shows Bergdahl understood his Army enlistment contract in 2008.
Bergdahl has said he left his Afghanistan post intending to reach a commander at another base and describe what he saw as problems with his unit.
Morgan said the decision was consistent with schizotypal personality disorder.
“I think he believes there are times that, if it’s the morally right thing to do, you have to break the rules,” he said. “There’s not a thinking through of: ‘Are there other ways to achieve this goal?'”
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. Obama said at the time the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.
Also Wednesday, the defense called a witness to testify that Bergdahl had helped deliver a colony of two-dozen feral cats to her animal sanctuary. The woman, who was allowed to testify without giving her name, said that Bergdahl had a rapport with even the most skittish cats, and that she would like to hire him when his case ends.
“His personal responsibility for these cats was uncanny. The devotion he had — you don’t see it a lot,” she said. “He’s almost like ‘the cat whisperer.'”
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