Retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike Toussaint, a burly Navy dog handler, grudgingly wiped away tears as he described the barrage of insurgent gunfire that killed his military service dog, Remco, during the search for Army Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Though he was never called to testify, Toussaint served as a prospective witness in the case against Bergdahl, who last week received a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Army, but avoided prison time for desertion, misbehavior before the enemy, and endangering troops.
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The military judge ordered that Bergdahl's rank be reduced from sergeant to private and required him to surrender $1,000 a month from his pay for 10 months. The sentencing arrived eight years after Bergdahl abandoned his outpost in Afghanistan in 2009 before the Taliban held him captive for five years.
Toussaint called the sentencing "disgusting" and said Bergdahl should have received life in prison for his "reckless" actions.
Nine days after Bergdahl's desertion, SEAL team members Toussaint and Remco were sent on a hostage rescue operation in southeastern Afghanistan to search for the missing private. He said the team, led by Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch, knew prior to the July 8 mission that Bergdahl voluntarily left his post, despite earlier reports stating he was captured on patrol.
"We all agreed we were going to go get him—he's an American, that’s our job—but we all wanted to have a talk with him," Toussaint said.
Hostage rescue missions are inherently dangerous, and Hatch testified last week that the operation to rescue Bergdahl was no different. He recalled expressing concern prior to the operation that someone would be killed or hurt given the hasty planning and grueling conditions.
Toussaint said he had no doubt the enemy knew they were coming. His unit came under heavy fire even before their two helicopters landed, leaving the team surrounded while they disembarked.
As the unit advanced to the position where they believed Bergdahl was being held, Toussaint, Hatch, Remco, and a third shooter peeled off to pursue two men wearing traditional Afghan dresses. Toussaint said they had to operate on the assumption one of the two men could be Bergdahl, limiting their engagement options.
When the two men disappeared into a field, Remco moved ahead to detect their location. Toussaint watched as Remco ran through a spray of bullets before he was shot in the head and killed.
Moments later, Hatch was shot in the right leg, shattering his femur and effectively ending his career. He subsequently endured 18 surgeries over a two-year span.
"It all happened real quick," Toussaint said. "I remember seeing Remco get within a couple feet of their location and then he got shot in the head and came flying back out, I mean literally flying out. Right about that time … because it all got chaotic real quick … Jimmy who was right to my right, got shot. I remember hearing him, I could tell he was in pain, and then all I remember was kind of like a fireworks show."
Toussaint said he ran into an onslaught of gunfire and grenades to kill the two militants. He grabbed Remco by his vest and dragged him back to Jimmy, where a couple of U.S. servicemen had arrived to administer first aid.
Toussaint choked back tears as he recalled carrying Remco onto a helicopter that airlifted him and Jimmy to a nearby hospital.
"I hadn't accepted that he was mortally wounded at that time, I think it was just denial," he said as he described clipping off Remco’s vest and trying to revive his breathing.
After accompanying Jimmy and Remco to the hospital, Toussaint and the third shooter went back out to the battlefield to search for Bergdahl.
Toussaint later received the Silver Star for pursuing the two men and ending the engagement, "allowing his teammates to provide lifesaving combat casualty care to his wounded team leader," according to the award citation. Remco also received a Silver Star for sacrificing himself "as he aggressively engaged the enemy, drew effective fire onto himself, and gave his teammates the split seconds needed to change the balance of the fight."
Toussaint said that night continues to haunt him eight years later.
He remembers Remco, who he described as a "complete live-wire," sitting uncharacteristically still and looking somberly into his eyes before charging toward the enemy. He said the moment felt like an intuitive goodbye.
"That and the fact that I relive watching him getting him shot—those two—those are the two that tend to stick with me and they probably always will," he said. "But the reality is he did his job. He did exactly what we told him to do."
Toussaint said Remco's death has been harder to accept given the circumstances of the mission.
"We knowingly went out in hazardous situations, it's just part of the job," he said. "It's not like I didn't accept the reality of any of us not coming home on any given night, that’s just the realistic truth to it … but to have that night take place only because—solely because—we had a selfish American that walked off a base, it just makes it harder to swallow."
The defense maintained during the sentencing hearing that Bergdahl couldn't be blamed for the series of consequences stemming from his desertion, given the chain of events included decisions made by others. Bergdahl's attorneys also argued Trump's comments on the case impacted their client's ability to receive a fair sentencing.
Though the defense had told the judge a dishonorable discharge would be acceptable, Bergdahl's chief defense lawyer told the New York Times last week he would challenge the ruling so his client could receive health care and other "benefits he badly needs" from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Bergdahl's case became politically fraught after former President Barack Obama traded five high-level Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for his release in 2014. The circumstance further deteriorated when then National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the private had served with "honor and distinction."
Toussaint, who now serves as an officer with a San Antonio-area police department, said the Obama administration's characterization of Bergdahl was a "slap in the face" to the men who risked their lives searching for the private and a disgrace to Remco's sacrifice.
As for Bergdahl's sentence, he asks, "What kind of a message does that send to the world, the military, and the victims who suffered because of this?"