WASHINGTON — The Army will conduct a “comprehensive” review of the disappearance and subsequent capture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by Taliban forces in 2009, the service announced Tuesday afternoon.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters Tuesday morning that an Article 15-6 investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance had been conducted, but it is closed and the results are classified.
That investigation was conducted by Combined Joint Task Force-82 in Afghanistan.
It could be awhile before the new review is launched.
“Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl's health and beginning his reintegration process. There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery … The Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sgt. Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity,” Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in a statement.
Bergdahl could face punishment if he deserted his unit, the top U.S. military officer suggested Tuesday.
“As for the circumstances of his capture … we’ll learn the facts,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a statement on his Facebook page. “Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Decisions about potential punishment for Bergdahl won’t be made until after the review is complete, and they will be made “in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices,” McHugh said.
On Saturday, the White House announced that it had released five detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in exchange for the Taliban’s release of Bergdahl, who was being held by the militants following his capture in Afghanistan in 2009. President Barack Obama appeared in the Rose Garden next to Bergdahl’s parents to celebrate his release.
In remarks made in Poland on Tuesday, Obama defended his decision:
“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” Obama said during the first stop of a four-day European trip.
Asked about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture, Obama said that no one was debriefing him yet and that it did not change the responsibility to try to recover him.
“Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”
But rather than being welcomed home, some are calling for Bergdahl to be prosecuted for desertion or other violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under the UCMJ, desertion in wartime can carry the death penalty.
Some of Bergdahl’s former unitmates and others in the military have accused Bergdahl of being a deserter, and that American soldiers were killed searching for him.
Dempsey acknowledged that servicemembers risked their lives to try to find Bergdahl.
“I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him,” Dempsey said on Facebook.
It’s also possible Bergdahl won’t be punished, even if he is guilty of wrongdoing leading up to his capture.
A senior defense official, speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity, said that “five years [of being held captive by the Taliban] is enough.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Dempsey suggested that the military is sensitive to accusations that it lets people off the hook. He noted that U.S. military leaders “have been accused of looking away from misconduct,” and said “it’s premature” to assume Bergdahl would not face discipline.
Still, Dempsey has cautioned against rushing to judgment.
“Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty,” Dempsey said.
In his Facebook statement, Dempsey said the military would “learn the facts” about Bergdahl’s capture “when he is able to provide them.”
The U.S. military plans to dedicate a lot of resources to facilitate Bergdahl’s reintegration. The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where Bergdahl has been receiving care since his arrival Sunday, said in a statement that the team of personnel who will assist in the soldier’s reintegration will likely involve hundreds of people — including Army investigators and attorneys — from multiple branches of the military.
Several experts will accompany the former prisoner when he moves on to the next level of care, hospital officials said. They will include at least one physician and one psychologist trained in survival, escape, resistance, and evasion.
But a timeline has not yet been set for that transition, officials said. He’s expected to continue the reintegration process at San Antonio Military Medical Center.
“Operational planners, aircrews, medical professionals, security officers, attorneys, chaplains, and specialists in finance, personnel, public affairs, and logistics are involved in these operations,” the hospital said in a statement. “Family members also assist as he continues in the reintegration process.”
At Landstuhl, Bergdahl has begun the decompression process aimed at maximizing his health and welfare “in earnest,” the hospital said.
“During this phase of reintegration, Sgt. Bergdahl is receiving more complete medical exams and will receive formal, structured briefings,” a hospital statement said. “Typically, information obtained in the operations and intelligence debriefings is immediately disseminated.”
A Pentagon spokesman said Monday that questions from Army questioners focus on intelligence matters as well as the conditions he faced while in captivity.
Dempsey also told the AP that Bergdahl’s promotion to staff sergeant, which was expected soon, won’t necessarily happen because he is longer missing in action, and therefore is no longer eligible for automatic promotions.
Army officials would not discuss Bergdahl’s promotion status on-the-record when contacted by Stars and Stripes.
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.