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Bowe Bergdahl: I Was Tortured, Shackled, and Caged in Taliban Captivity

The Army sergeant, recently charged with desertion after he went missing from his post in Afghanistan in 2009, details his captivity.

by Liz Fields
Mar 26 2015, 11:00pm

Photo via AP

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has issued a detailed statement about his time as a militant hostage in Afghanistan and Pakistan, revealing the torturous conditions in which he survived and tried to escape from 12 times during the five years he was held by Taliban insurgents and Haqqani Network allies.

The 28-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, said he attempted his first escape "within the first few hours of being captured" in 2009 and that he managed to break free twice briefly from the buildings where he was held before being recaptured a "short distance" from the site. In one attempt, the soldier evaded his captors and lasted for nine days "without food and only putrid water to drink" before he collapsed on a short mountain and was found by a Taliban search team.

After that particular escape attempt, a group of militants beat him and tried to rip his beard and hair out, Bergdahl said.

Bergdahl's statement came the same day the soldier was charged Wednesday with deserting his base in Paktika province and "misbehavior before the enemy." He was just 23 when he allegedly walked away from his military post in Afghanistan in 2009.

'I was kept in constant isolation during the entire five years, with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering light.'

Speculation surrounding the exact events leading to Bergdahl's capture has been the cause of intense media and political scrutiny in recent months, following his high-profile release last May in exchange for five Taliban commanders who were being held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In coming weeks, Bergdahl will face an Article 32 preliminary hearing over the charges — the military's version of a civilian grand jury inquiry — to determine if there is enough evidence to launch a court-martial trial.

In the five years he was in isolated captivity, Bergdahl says he developed multiple pus-infected sores under and around the areas of his body that were shackled and was beaten and tortured many times, including with sensory deprivation.

"I was kept in constant isolation during the entire five years, with little to no understanding of time, through periods of constant darkness, periods of constant light, and periods of completely random flickering light," he said.

"I was continuously shown Taliban videos," he added. "Told I was going to be executed. Told I was never going back. Told I would leave the next day, and the next day told I would be there for 30 years. Told I was going to die there. Told to kill myself. Told I would have my ears and nose cut off, as well as other parts of my body."

Bergdahl's statement was released alongside a letter his attorney, Eugene Fidell, had written to US Army Commander General Mark Milley earlier this month. In the letter, dated more than three weeks before Milley laid out the charges against Bergdahl, Fidell commented on the investigation into his client's alleged desertion, which began following the soldier's release last year.

Related: What Congress really told the White House about the Bowe Bergdahl swap

The full investigator's report has not yet been released publicly or to Bergdahl's lawyers, who have only been privy to the executive summary, Fidell said in an statement. But an assessment of the summary findings reveals the investigator essentially concluded that the 28-year-old was not planning to stray from his post permanently, he added.

"The report basically concludes that SGT Bergdahl did not intend to remain away from the Army permanently, as classic 'long' desertion requires," Fidell wrote in the letter dated March 2. "The case sounds more in 'avoidance of important service' at the outpost than 'shirking hazardous duty.'"

Yet the specific charges listed on Milley's announcement Wednesday include "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty," and "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit, or place," which carry maximum sentences of five years and life in prison, respectively.

The report also "dismisses a variety of contentions that have been made about" the young sergeant, Fidell wrote, including that Bergdahl was "planning to walk to China or India," that "any soldier died searching for him," or that he left his post to "get in touch" with the Taliban and had misbehaved while in captivity.

But these widespread assertions have gained traction globally through print and broadcast media, severely compromising Bergdahl's chances of receiving a fair trial, his lawyer said. Fidell added that at least 60 percent of military personnel had pre-determined the young soldier's guilt and believed he should be prosecuted when surveyed by the Military Times last summer.

Related: Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Charged With Desertion and 'Misbehavior Before the Enemy'

The issue of the prisoner swap has also stirred up political tensions between the Obama administration, which authorized the prisoner exchange without seeking Congress's approval, and Republican lawmakers, who challenged the decision as "illegal" and claimed negotiation with groups like the Taliban only further encouraged terrorist activities and kidnappings. This matter ultimately also weighs into any decision to prosecute Bergdahl, Fidell said.

"Because of intense and continuing media and blogger activity, as well as sustained congressional interest in the prisoner swap, it is fair to say that this case, which as been referred to as 'Bergdahlgate,' has generated more sustained publicity than any military justice case in at least the last quarter century," Fidell wrote in the letter.

"SGT Bergdahl has been vilified as a coward in the absence of a shred of evidence to support that description," he added. "There have been calls for him to be executed."

Bergdahl, who returned to normal desk duty last July last after his "reintegration process" ended, is now being accompanied by two officers at all times, even while in civilian attire — not to prevent him from escaping, but toprotect him from others convinced of his guilt, his lawyer said.

"Whatever physical danger SGT Bergdahl may face when he re-enters private life (and I fear he will), it would be very difficult to assemble an impartial court-martial panel," Fidell wrote.

Fidell said that Bergdahl had suffered enough during his time in captivity and that a "trial would add to the stress SGT Bergdahl has experienced, and from which he is far from recovered." He urged the Army to consider these issues when determining how to proceed with disposition.

"It would be unduly harsh to impose on him the lifetime stigma of a court-martial conviction or an Other Than Honorable discharge and to deny him veteran's benefits," Fidell wrote. "The existing missing-captured status determination should not be disturbed and his injuries in captivity should be deemed to have been incurred in the line of duty and not as a result of his own misconduct."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields