Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, recently released after five years as a captive of the Taliban, may still be disciplined if the Army finds evidence of misconduct, the U.S. military's top officer said Tuesday.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was speaking after claims from members of Bergdahl's unit that he had been captured after abandoning his post.
The New York Times cited a former military official as saying Bergdahl slipped away from his base near the Afghan border with Pakistan, leaving a note saying he had become disillusioned with the Army and the war and was going to start a new life.
"Our army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred," Dempsey said.
The general stressed that Bergdahl, who was taken as a private and promoted while in captivity, is innocent until proven guilty, and that the military would continue to care for him and his family.
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"The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity," Dempsey wrote in his statement.
"This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him. As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts."
Bergdahl was released over the weekend in Afghanistan in exchange for five high-level Taliban militants who had been held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Barack Obama has come under fire from Republicans and other critics who say the swap will encourage others to try to take American soldiers or diplomats hostage.
Obama's aides have defended the deal as an appropriate attempt to save the life of a captured soldier whose health was believed to be deteriorating.
On Tuesday, Obama defended his decision, saying his administration had consulted with Congress about that possibility "for some time."
But the president brushed aside questions about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture, saying the United States has an obligation to not leave its military personnel behind.
"Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American solider back if he's held in captivity," Obama said during a news conference in Poland. "We don't condition that."
On the Facebook page of his unit, the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, many posters slammed Bergdahl as a deserter who should be held accountable for his actions.
"Now he can stand trial for deserting his post," wrote Brandon Fall, USA Today reported.
Those who served with him are also raising questions. "Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Nathan Bradley Bethea, who said he served in Bergdahl's unit, wrote in The Daily Beast.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview Monday, the team leader who supervised Bergdahl said he had mixed feelings about his homecoming.
"I'm definitely happy for his family," Sgt. Evan Buetow said of Bergdahl in an interview with Newsmax TV's "America's Forum." "I mean, he's an American citizen; I'm happy that he's back and that we can hopefully get closure to this whole incident."
But Buetow, who now works in law enforcement, said that he's still mystified by his platoon-mate's decision to "walk away" from his post, his mission, and his fellow troops into the grasp of the Afghan insurgents they were fighting.
"I just want to ask him why," said Buetow.
Buetow also echoed the charge made by other platoon members that Bergdahl's actions cost the lives of soldiers sent to search for him.
"So yes, as a direct result of him leaving, several soldiers died," said Buetow.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a measured defense Monday of the prisoner swap, noting that many of America's allies make similar deals.
Asked about the exchange by the moderator at an event in a Denver suburb, Clinton said she did not second-guess people who make such tough decisions, but that the American tradition of caring for its citizens and soldiers was a "noble" one.
She also noted that countries like Israel have made similar swaps, citing that country's decision to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one of its soldiers in 2011.
"This young man, whatever the circumstances, was an American citizen — is an American citizen — was serving in our military," Clinton said. "The idea that you really care for your own citizens and particularly those in uniform, I think is a very noble one."
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