Psychiatrist: Bergdahl suffered from mental disorders before joining Army

FORT BRAGG -- A forensic psychiatrist testified Wednesday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl suffered from a personality disorder and other mental ailments before he joined the Army in 2008.

The testimony came during the third day of witnesses for the defense in the sentencing hearing for Bergdahl, who walked away from his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009 and spent five years as a prisoner of the Taliban.

Dr. Charles A. Morgan III said that Bergdahl suffers from schizotypal personality disorder, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive deficits and social phobia.

The diagnoses do not mean Bergdahl is insane: The Army's sanity board has already ruled the soldier is sane, signaling he could grasp that his actions were wrong when he undertook them, and that he can understand the proceedings.

But Morgan said the disorders "played a big role" in his decision to abandon his post. Bergdahl has said he left Outpost Mest with a plan to run about 20 miles to a nearby base in order to bring his concerns about serious issues in his unit to the attention of a general.

The psychiatrist testified that Bergdahl's schizotypal personality disorder made it difficult for the soldier to appropriately weigh the potential consequences of his plan.

"He responds quickly - perhaps too fast - to finding a solution and doing the right thing," Morgan said. "Once he gets an idea that makes sense, he wants to move on it and do it."

Many people with the condition are perceived as odd or preoccupied with an inner world, and have trouble forming close bonds with other people. They may also be both self-critical and suspicious or untrusting of others, Morgan said. 

Unlike patients with the disorder's more serious cousin, schizophrenia, those with schizotypal disorder do not hear "voices" or suffer from delusions.

Morgan said he was confident Bergdahl suffered from the disorder long before he joined the Army. Likewise, the psychiatrist believed that he already had PTSD when he enlisted, stemming from interactions with his father in childhood.

"Home life wasn't always peaceful," Morgan testified.

The panic attack that culminated in Bergdahl's removal from the Coast Guard was likely related to that disorder, Morgan said.

Bergdahl's brutal period of captivity - during which he was locked in a cage, beaten, isolated and forced to watch videos of executions - only served to exacerbate his conditions, Morgan testified. Bergdahl himself testified earlier this week that he is plagued by flashbacks of his treatment at the hands of his captors, triggered by things as minor as smelling wet earth or hearing a rooster crow.

Complicating his treatment, Morgan said, is the fact that unlike most traumatized patients, the danger for Bergdahl is not completely past.

He is still facing up to life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, and has been the target of countless threats since his return, leaving him hanging in a sort of "limbo," Morgan said.

"[Bergdahl] couldn't say 'I am completely safe' for multiple reasons," he said.

The prosecution disputed the schizotypal diagnosis, questioning how Bergdahl could have made preparations including mailing his computer home, purchasing Afghan clothes to disguise himself, and withdrawing money for bribes before leaving his outpost if his condition blocked him from understanding consequences.

Prosecutor Capt. Nicole Ulrich, also pointed to statements Bergdahl had made to investigators about how he knew he would get in trouble for leaving without permission.

But Morgan argued that even young children are able to understand that breaking a rule will get them in trouble. Bergdahl's schizotypal disorder does not mean his is unintelligent or incapable of being resourceful, Morgan said.

"He's bright," Morgan said. "Many people with mental illness are smart and have brain power."

But the condition limits his ability to fully comprehend how other people will think about and react to his own actions, or make a plan that draws on experiences other than his own, Morgan said, resulting in decisions that can seem remarkably fantastical or short-sighted.

Morgan added that Bergdahl had been tested to determine whether he was pretending to be more mentally ill than he actually is.

"By any measure we have, he is not faking his symptoms," the doctor said. "It's the genuine thing, in my view."

Morgan also testified that sending Bergdahl to military prison would exacerbate his PTSD, recreating some of the confinement and total loss of control he experienced as a prisoner of the Haqqani network.

The defense also called a woman who runs a cat sanctuary, who asked not to be named on the record. The woman met Bergdahl after he called her, seeking help relocating a feral cat colony in San Antonio.

Bergdahl worried that the cats would not survive without him around to take care of them. The woman said she talked to him about trapping the cats for transport to her sanctuary.

The witness said Bergdahl was able to design and construct a "mind-boggling" cat trap to catch the animals, and proved tireless in his drive to protect them.

Later, when he visited the sanctuary, she was amazed to see the typically-aloof animals flocking to Bergdahl.

"He's almost the cat whisperer," she said.

The woman said she had no qualms about offering Bergdahl a job, despite his precarious legal situation.

"If he ever has a desire to come work at the sanctuary, we would have a position for him," she said.

Bergdahl's defense team has asked Nance to sentence Bergdahl to no prison time. Although the prosecution has not yet formally made a recommendation, the lawyers have indicated they are seeking a prison sentence.

The prosecution has argued that Bergdahl's desertion placed other units in Afghanistan in danger as they searched for him, resulting in severe injuries to three service members.

The hearing will continue Thursday. Nance has asked both sides to be prepared to go forward with their closing arguments.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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