FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- As the only U.S. service member captured and freed over the 16-year course of the war in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was able to provide vital information about the Haqqani network and circumstances of his captivity, according to two analysts who participated in his debriefing process.
Both officials say those details provided instrumental insight, both for troops on the ground in the Middle East at the time and for crafting training materials to teach future soldiers how to resist their captors and escape in a similar situation.
"It was a gold mine," former Army intelligence analyst Amber Dach testified. "It really reshaped the way we do intelligence collection in the area."
The testimony from witnesses for the defense came one day after Bergdahl himself took the stand to speak about his captivity and the torture and isolation that accompanied it. Bergdahl, who walked away from his outpost before his capture in 2009, pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy Oct. 16.
Dach, who was assigned to Bergdahl's disappearance as lead analyst immediately after his departure, said she found him "very eager to help" during interviews at a German hospital after he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
"He was very motivated to just download all the details he could recall," she said.
The information was critical for intelligence analysts to build a captor network, identify holding locations, and change the way they approached hostage situations in the area, Dach said.
Her debrief team focused on questioning Bergdahl on the most critical, time-sensitive information first, in order to relay it to troops in the field.
By contrast, Bergdahl's debriefing with Terrence Russell, a division chief for the Department of Defense's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, was more methodical.
Russell is involved in the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, and said the lessons gleaned from Bergdahl's ordeal will help tailor training for current and future soldiers.
JPRA even recreated the cage Bergdahl was held in for four years as a training tool.
Russell said he hoped to further explore some of the things Bergdahl had talked about in his debriefing and even use him as a speaker in SERE training. Although Bergdahl did not have the training before he deployed, many former prisoners of war have reported they drew on that instruction and lessons provided by other captives to give themselves a fighting chance.
"They found a way to meet the challenges and return with honor, and that's our goal," Russell said.
He expressed frustration that the court-martial proceedings were blocking him from utilizing Bergdahl as a training source, arguing the soldier can still serve his country.
"I need him, I need him now. Honestly, I need him three years ago when he first returned," Russell said. "The fact that I can't get that information is wrong."
Other testimony for the defense Tuesday focused on Bergdahl's character - a former sergeant in his unit and a supervisor at his current posting at Fort Sam Houston both described him as reliable and respectful - as well as some of his ongoing medical issues.
Bergdahl suffered nerve death, also known as neuropathy, during his time in captivity. Two different medical experts who have examined Bergdahl have concluded that the condition is expected to stay the same or worsen.
The nerve death affected Bergdahl's hands and feet, and make it difficult for him to feel pain, temperature changes or vibration, one Army doctor testified. The condition - coupled with other injuries to Bergdahl's lower back and shoulder, resulted in him being placed on a "permanent profile," essentially signaling his injuries left him unfit for active duty.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Nance, the military judge overseeing the case, has indicated he will take Bergdahl's injuries and the help he provided intelligence groups about his captors into account as mitigation.
The defense team is expected to call its final three witnesses Wednesday. Bergdahl faces up to life in prison.
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