In nearly three weeks of frantic searching for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, troops were forced to sleep outside after hiking through nearby mountains.
They spooned to stay warm at night and even had to eat dirt, said Maj. Silvino S. Silvino, then the commander of Bergdahl’s Blackfoot Company.
The 33 soldiers who were with Bergdahl at Observation Post Mest were worn ragged during the 2009 search, dubbed “Operation Yukon Recovery,” three witnesses testified Thursday in the first day of Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing. And troops abandoned counterinsurgency efforts as a direct result of Bergdahl’s disappearance, a witness told the hearing.
One soldier was struck by three IEDs in one day and had to be forcibly removed from the area and sent to a forward operating base to recover.
Capt. John Billings, the post’s commander, suffered from dysentery and soiled his uniform, which he then had to wear for days, he said.
Paratroopers who spent 37 consecutive days outside the protective wire of a base had to have a supply of socks and T-shirts delivered after their undergarments “literally rotted off of them,” said Col. Clinton Baker, then a battalion commander.
Baker said that IED attacks on troops spiked, largely because more troops were in areas they wouldn’t typically be in.
“It’s as high-risk an operation than any other I’ve seen in my life,” Baker said. “A lot of risk to the men, and a lot of risk to the mission.”
He said he “couldn’t say” how the search affected the Army’s overall mission in Afghanistan.
Observation Post Mest wasn’t much to look at, based on the witnesses’ statements. A remote base consisting of a couple of container buildings, it was surrounded by dry wadis that filled with snowmelt during the spring, about six kilometers from a known enemy outpost.
The morning Bergdahl went missing, he and others at the post were scheduled to be relieved and sent back to the comforts of the forward operating base.
After his disappearance, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and spent five years as their prisoner. He was swapped for five Taliban detainees in 2014 and brought home as a hero, but the narrative quickly changed, with questions about Bergdahl’s loyalty and the wisdom of letting the so-called Taliban Five free.
Last year, Bergdahl was charged with desertion—which carries a five-year sentence—and misbehavior before the enemy, for which he could face a life sentence. The hearing will determine whether Bergdahl should be court-martialed.
About 75 journalists from around the world sprawled through the basement, where the day-long proceeding took place Thursday, filling two overflow rooms and the hearing room.
Bergdahl, now 29, sat with his defense attorneys, across the room from the Army’s legal team. He appeared focused on the proceeding and took notes regularly in a notepad.
Assigned to a desk job at Fort Sam Houston, Bergdahl must be escorted off-base for fear of his safety, his lawyer Eugene Fidell said in a statement this week.
Billings, who remembers seeing Bergdahl the day before he went missing, described the then-private as “a great soldier from all accounts.” Billings was napping on June 30, 2009, when a soldier awoke him to inform him Bergdahl had disappeared after leaving his weapon and night vision goggles on his cot.
“I was in shock, ma’am, in utter disbelief that I couldn’t find one of my men,” Billings told the Army’s main attorney, Maj. Margaret V. Kurz.
Billings said he hadn’t been told the U.S. Army Coast Guard had discharged Bergdahl previously for psychological problems or that the Army waived its standards for mental health to admit him.
On the record, Billings officially debunked a rumor that soldiers died while searching for Bergdahl, which GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeated.
“None of my men physically died during the search for Sgt. Bergdahl,” he said.
Still, the incident tarnished the name of Blackfoot Company, Silvino said.
“They’ll say, ‘Don’t be Blackfoot Company, they lose people,’” Silvino said. “They talk about it. we have a mark.”
The hearing continues at 9 a.m. Friday, when the defense is expected to call four witnesses.