SAN ANTONIO -- Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's commanding officer when the Idaho native vanished from his post in Afghanistan six years ago testified Thursday that he thought his soldiers were playing a joke on him when they told him that Bergdahl had gone missing.
Speaking at the outset of an Article 32 hearing to determine if Bergdahl should face a military trial on desertion and other charges, Capt. John Billings said that when he realized they were telling the truth, he was "in shock, absolute utter disbelief that I couldn't find one of my own men. That's a hard thing to swallow," he told the military prosecutor, Maj. Margaret Kurz.
Kurz alleged that Bergdahl had planned for weeks to abandon his post and that there was enough evidence to warrant that the Idaho native face a court-martial.
"Under the cover of darkness, he snuck off the post," Kurz told the officer presiding over the hearing.
Billings testified that the entire platoon was left "emotionally busted" by the physically and emotionally draining search for Bergdahl. He described weeks of searching, often on little food or sleep and in temperatures in the high 90s.
"Physically, mentally I was defeated," Billings said, adding that he felt like he had "failed" his men.
Bergdahl, who spent five years as a Taliban captive until being exchanged last year for five Taliban commanders, took notes during the hearing at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he has been stationed since returning to the U.S. last year. Wearing his blue and black dress uniform, Bergdahl answered, "Yes sir I do," when asked by the presiding office if he understood the charges.
Bergdahl's company commander, Maj. Silvino Silvino, said that after Bergdahl went missing from his post in southeastern Afghanistan's Paktika Province on June 30, 2009, some of the thousands of soldiers who took part in the 45-day search grew angry because they felt he had deserted.
"I would tell them we are doing what we are doing because he is our brother," Silvino testified.
Before disappearing, Bergdahl had expressed opposition to the war in general and misgivings about his own role in it. Military prosecutor Maj. Margaret Kurz said Thursday that Bergdahl had actually been planning for weeks to abandon the post and had emailed friends and family about his plans beforehand.
Before the hearing, which could last several days, legal experts said they expected Bergdahl's lawyers to argue that he suffered enough during his years in captivity.
His lead attorney, Eugene Fidell, has cited an Army investigation that determined Bergdahl left his post, but not the Army, and that his "specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer."
Fidell said he plans to call witnesses, but he declined to say whether Bergdahl would be among them or to disclose further details about his strategy.
Under questioning by one of Bergdahl's attorneys Thursday, both Billings and Silvino said Bergdahl had been a model soldier until he disappeared. Both also said they weren't aware of Bergdahl's mental health history, including his psychological discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard and that an Army psychiatric board had concluded that Bergdahl possessed "severe mental defect."
The prisoner exchange that brought Bergdahl back to the U.S. has been strongly criticized by many Republicans and some Democrats, who say it was politically motivated and violated the U.S. policy of not negotiating with terrorists.
Military prosecutors charged Bergdahl in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted of the misbehavior charge, he could face up to life in a military prison. He could also be dishonorably discharged, reduced in rank and made to forfeit all pay.
CBS News correspondent David Martin reported the charges are notable because they do not carry the possibility of the death penalty, which some critics have asked be taken into consideration.
While the Pentagon has said there is no evidence anyone died searching for Bergdahl, legal experts say the misbehavior charge allows authorities to allege his actions put soldiers who searched for him in harm's way.
Fidell has expressed concern that negative publicity that has been highly critical of Bergdahl could influence how the case is resolved. At the hearing, he asked that copies of Bergdahl's interview with investigators be made public. Fidell wants the interview released to help counteract the negative publicity. No immediate action was taken on that request.
The Article 32 hearing will result in a report that will be forwarded to Gen. Robert Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command. Abrams will decide whether the case should be referred to a court-martial or is resolved in another manner.