FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) – During a July 2009 raid seeking intelligence on the whereabouts of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had walked off his post in Afghanistan, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Army Specialist Jonathan Morita and mangled his right hand.
Minutes later, a second grenade exploded and sent shrapnel into the rifleman’s left elbow.
“I definitely thought I was going to die in Afghanistan,” the former soldier testified on Thursday at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where Bergdahl awaits sentencing on charges spurred by his decision to ditch his duties in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan.
Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and spent five years suffering harsh conditions in captivity, has pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The 31-year-old Idaho native faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
A parade of prosecution witnesses this week have described the danger they faced while searching for Bergdahl after he disappeared in June 2009 and the lasting effects of injuries they sustained in the futile hunt.
Bergdahl was released in a 2014 Taliban prisoner swap criticized by Republicans.
Several service members on Thursday recounted a hastily organized mission in July 2009 to search villages near Forward Operating Base Kushamond that ended in a Taliban ambush.
Early the morning of July 9, 2009, troops came under heavy fire. A grenade exploded near Texas Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Jason Walters, then an Army Ranger.
“Everything went black,” he testified. “I saw stars.”
As soldiers scrambled back to their position behind a berm, Walters saw Sergeant 1st Class Mark Allen get shot in the head.
U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Marx, then a captain, said he helped load Allen unto a medical helicopter.
“That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, getting Sergeant Allen on that chopper,” Marx said. “It was hot, we were dehydrated, and just carrying his limp body – it was tough.”
Allen suffered a traumatic brain injury and is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate, according to prosecutors. His wife and doctor are expected to testify on Monday, when the sentencing hearing resumes.
Army Specialist Morita, who was hurt in the same ambush, underwent three surgeries to repair his hand.
He said he is more agitated and angry than before, and he directs his anger “toward one person in particular.” As Morita left the courtroom on Monday, he leveled a steady glare at the defense table where Bergdahl sat.
Reporting by Greg Lacour; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Jonathan Oatis