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Psychology to play major role in Bergdahl case

Posted: 4:05 PM, Mar 17, 2016
Updated: 2016-03-17 20:05:46Z

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Well before Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked away from his Army post in Afghanistan, he washed out of the Coast Guard three weeks into boot camp when he was found on the barracks floor suffering a panic attack, his hands covered in blood from a nosebleed.

Two years later, though, he joined the Army, obtaining a waiver from rules that bar the enlistment of those with certain psychological problems.

The details about his mental health — including the Army's later diagnosis of Bergdahl as suffering from "schizotypal personality disorder" — are contained in newly released documents that offer a glimpse of the legal strategy his lawyers may use in the desertion case against him.

Bergdahl, 29, was held five years by the Taliban and its allies before he was swapped in 2014 for five Guantanamo Bay detainees in a deal bitterly criticized by members of Congress. He is charged not only with desertion but with endangering comrades who were sent out to search for him, and could get life in prison if convicted at a military trial set to begin this summer.

In a 2014 interview soon after his release, Bergdahl told a general investigating his disappearance that he grew up reading about the samurai code and World War II heroes, spending much of his time alone wandering the Idaho woods with cats, dogs and horses. He loved the ocean and found the Coast Guard's domestic mission honorable, but admitted in the interview to being overwhelmed around other people.

"Growing up the way I grew up, I also lacked the understanding of how to move through society," he said, according to the documents released by his lawyers.

He found the pressure intense at a Coast Guard boot camp in 2006: "You were right there in the focal point and every action you were doing was pressured and it was watched. What ended up happening was, I ended up having a panic attack, about three weeks into it."

The officer who conducted the investigation, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, later testified at a hearing that Bergdahl was found on the floor, blood on his hands. Bergdahl told Dahl that at the time, his family, especially his father, had been making him feel as if "I can't succeed in anything, that I am a failure."

Bergdahl said a psychiatrist asked him to sign paperwork, and he received an "uncharacterized discharge" from the Coast Guard. In court, his lawyers have described it as a "psychological discharge."

In 2008, however, Bergdahl was granted a waiver to enter the Army, which at the time had relaxed its recruitment standards because it was stretched thin by the fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

He told Dahl that he disclosed his panic attack and reasons for leaving the Coast Guard to an Army recruiter. The recruiter then typed a statement for Bergdahl to sign saying he "had a hard time adapting to change" but not mentioning the panic attack, Bergdahl said.

By several accounts, his Army stint was successful until he walked off and fell into the hands of the Taliban, with one sergeant testifying last September: "He was a great soldier."

The documents released Wednesday night also include a form from July 2015 showing that an Army Sanity Board Evaluation concluded that Bergdahl suffered from schizotypal personality disorder when he left his post in Afghanistan. A Mayo Clinic website says people with the disorder have trouble interpreting social cues and can become significantly distrustful of others.

However, the sanity board said that despite the "severe mental disease or defect," Bergadhl was able to understand that his actions in walking away from his unit were wrong. The board also concluded Bergdahl isn't currently suffering from psychological problems that would prevent him from standing trial.

On Thursday, Bergdahl's lawyer Army Lt. Col. Franklin Rosenblatt declined to discuss how the psychiatric issues figure in their strategy. But defense arguments at his 2015 Article 32 hearing — similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding — shed light on the role his mental health may play.

Defense attorney Eugene Fidell told the officer presiding over the hearing that mitigating factors in the case include "the psychological diagnosis that's before you, and the need for continuing medical and psychiatric or psychological care. This is totally undisputed."

Fidell also said the decision to let Bergdahl in the Army was "improvident."

"I think a reasonable observer, nonetheless, would wonder why the Army would've taken a person who, within the relatively recent past, had bilged out of Coast Guard recruit training — boot camp — for this kind of reason," he said.

Information about Bergdahl's mental health could garner sympathy from jurors if it is allowed as evidence during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the court-martial, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Walt Huffman, who served as the branch's top lawyer and later as dean of the Texas Tech University School of Law.

"Sometimes juries hear things and say, 'We understand the law and all that, but it's not right to punish this guy,'" Huffman said.

The soldier's mental state could also be used to argue for leniency during the sentencing phase, he said.

Huffman said the defense could also use the recruitment information to argue in a pretrial motion that the Army shouldn't have jurisdiction to try Bergdahl because he shouldn't have been allowed in to begin with.

Prosecutors could counter, however, that Bergdahl wore the uniform and accepted military pay long enough to justify Army jurisdiction, Huffman said.