By Greg Lacour
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was an efficient soldier who at times seemed conflicted about his unit's mission in Afghanistan before walking off his post in June 2009 in an act of desertion, his former squad leader testified on Tuesday.
Bergdahl, 31, could be sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty on Oct. 16 to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. His defense lawyers are trying to avoid a prison sentence for the Idaho native, who spent years as a prisoner of Taliban insurgents.
"He executed quickly, efficiently - no back talk, no questions," said former Sergeant Greg Leatherman, who was Bergdahl's squad leader the year he deserted. "He wanted to go out and get bad guys."
Under cross-examination, Leatherman added that Bergdahl complained a lot about the military hierarchy and that the unit was not aggressive enough against the Taliban.
"He wasn't sold on the mission we were fighting," Leatherman testified at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina.
Bergdahl was released in a 2014 Taliban prisoner swap brokered by Democratic President Barack Obama's administration. He has no plea agreement with prosecutors, leaving his sentence up to Army Colonel Jeffery Nance.
Bergdahl gave nearly two hours of unsworn statements on Monday, discussing his mental health and the torture and neglect he endured after being captured by the Taliban, factors the defense hopes will earn him leniency.
During last year's presidential campaign, Republican candidate Donald Trump called Bergdahl "a no-good traitor who should have been executed." Nance has ruled that the comments by Trump, now president and commander in chief, had not affected the fairness of the court proceeding, but said he will consider them a mitigating factor.
Another witness, who supervised Bergdahl's current work as a clerk at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, said he has been reliable.
"There was less drama with Sergeant Bergdahl on a daily basis than most of the (non-commissioned officers) in our office," Audry Ellingson, Bergdahl's former supervisor, testified. Ellingson is a retired Army major who was serving in a civilian capacity at the time.
Multiple service members called as witnesses by prosecutors spoke of the hazardous conditions they faced in the futile search for Bergdahl, who says he deserted to report "critical problems" in his chain of command.
Several soldiers fell ill or were badly injured during hastily organized missions to find him. Master Sergeant Mark Allen, the most critically hurt, was shot in the head, leaving him unable to speak or walk.
(Reporting by Greg Lacour; Writing by Colleen Jenkins and Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)