FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s difficult childhood and his washout from Coast Guard boot camp stoked serious psychiatric disorders that helped spur him to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009, a psychiatrist testified Wednesday.
Dr. Charles Morgan said the soldier was already suffering from a schizophrenia-like condition and post-traumatic stress disorder when he disappeared in Afghanistan. Morgan was the final defense witness at sentencing, and closing arguments are expected to start Thursday.
The forensic psychiatrist said interviews with family and childhood friends, as well as a lengthy exam with Bergdahl, convinced him the soldier was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder when he disappeared in Afghanistan. He said he concurred with an Army Sanity Board document that previously made the diagnosis public.
On the stand, Morgan went into greater detail than what was previously disclosed about Bergdahl’s mental health. He said Bergdahl has an internal, self-critical commentary that he doesn’t recognize as his own thoughts. Bergdahl, he said, engages in fantasy and has thoughts of self-castration to purify himself.
Bergdahl and others with the disorder “have this experience of their own inner life as if it’s not them,” Morgan said. He said the internal commentary manifests in thoughts such as: “You’re never going to be good enough.”
However, Morgan said the commentary isn’t an auditory hallucination, and Bergdahl isn’t psychotic. He said Bergdahl knew right from wrong when he walked off his post.
Still, the disorder makes it difficult for Bergdahl to see the second- and third-order effects of his actions and how they will impact others, Morgan said.
Morgan believes Bergdahl had post-traumatic stress disorder before his 2008 Army enlistment largely due to growing up with a quick-tempered father. Symptoms of anxiety and tunnel vision, sometimes present when he interacted with his father, occurred the night Bergdahl had a 2006 panic attack that caused his Coast Guard discharge, Morgan said.
Bergdahl’s father believed in corporal punishment and punched holes in the walls when he was angry, Morgan said. Growing up, Bergdahl would sometimes hide when he heard his father’s truck arriving at their house in Idaho.
Capt. Nicole Ulrich, a prosecutor, asserted on cross-examination that Bergdahl’s current therapist has misgivings about the schizotypal personality diagnosis. Morgan, who has directly treated 75 prisoners of war, disagreed and responded that forensic examinations such as his are much more thorough than typical therapy sessions that often focus on asking about a patient’s day or managing prescriptions.
Morgan’s testimony was part of defense efforts to mitigate any potential punishment. Defense attorneys have made clear that Bergdahl is competent to answer the charges. The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, also said Wednesday that evidence shows Bergdahl understood his Army enlistment contract in 2008.
Bergdahl has said he left his Afghanistan post intending to reach a commander at another base and describe what he saw as problems with his unit.
Morgan said the decision was consistent with schizotypal personality disorder.
“I think he believes there are times that, if it’s the morally right thing to do, you have to break the rules,” he said. “There’s not a thinking through of: `Are there other ways to achieve this goal?“’
Earlier this week, Bergdahl took the stand to apologize to the troops who were wounded searching for him, and he described the brutal conditions of his five-year captivity. Two military agents who debriefed Bergdahl also testified about how much valuable intelligence he provided.
Prosecutors presented evidence that the wounds to several troops who searched for him merit stiff punishment. Bergdahl faces up to life in prison. The military judge hearing the case has wide discretion on his punishment because Bergdahl didn’t strike a plea agreement with prosecutors when he admitted to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
The 31-year-old soldier from Hailey, Idaho, was brought home by President Barack Obama in 2014 in a swap for five Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Obama said at the time the U.S. does not leave its service members on the battlefield. Republicans roundly criticized Obama, and Donald Trump went further while campaigning for president, repeatedly calling Bergdahl a traitor who deserved serious punishment.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.