By Greg Lacour
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - Former Navy SEAL James Hatch, shot in the leg during a July 2009 attempt to rescue U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, testified on Wednesday he knew someone would get hurt or killed searching for the soldier after he left his post.
At Bergdahl's sentencing hearing at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, Hatch said he has had 18 medical procedures to repair the damage from an enemy fighter's AK-47 during the hostage rescue mission. A military dog named Remco died in the raid to recover Bergdahl, who on Oct. 16 pleaded guilty to desertion.
But the senior chief petty officer, who retired in 2011 after his injury, said he never questioned the mission.
"He’s an American," said Hatch, who still walks with a limp.
The injuries suffered by service members who hunted for Bergdahl are a key focus for prosecutors seeking his punishment. They argue his actions stretched the military's resources to support dangerous and hasty search-and-rescue operations by soldiers.
Bergdahl, 31, faces up to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy that endangered U.S. troops.
The Idaho native was captured by the Taliban after walking off his combat outpost in Paktika province without permission in June 2009. He spent the next five years suffering torture, abuse and neglect in captivity before being released in a 2014 Taliban prisoner swap criticized by Republicans.
Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, the military judge in the case, allowed the injury evidence over the objections of defense attorneys, who say Bergdahl is not directly responsible for them.
Statements by President Donald Trump also loom over the case.
The soldier's defense attorneys say the Republican, who as a candidate referred to Bergdahl as a "a no-good traitor who should have been executed," has unlawfully influenced the proceedings.
At a press conference last week on the day of Bergdahl's guilty plea, Trump said he could not talk about the case, then added: "But I think people have heard my comments in the past."
The defense says Bergdahl should be spared prison time because of the president's criticism. Nance said in court on Wednesday that he was still considering the defense motion.
In court last week, Bergdahl said he left his post to report "critical problems" in his chain of command.
Captain John Billings, Bergdahl’s platoon leader at the time of his disappearance, testified on Wednesday that he and another soldier contracted dysentery during the search operation that followed.
“Imagine putting yourself on the side of a mountain with little water, little sleep, little chow, having not showered in 10 days, and not knowing when you’re going to get to talk to your family next,” Billings said. “That’s about what it was like.”
(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay)