Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will face an investigation and a potential court-martial if the Army finds that he deserted his unit in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said Tuesday.
The 28-year-old Bergdahl was "innocent until proven guilty," Dempsey said. However, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promised that "our Army's leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred."
Bergdahl's release in Afghanistan last Friday by the Taliban in exchange for five high-value prisoners at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba has triggered a firestorm of criticism from soldiers he served with and from the parents of troops who reportedly were killed in efforts to find him.
Dempsey told the Associated Press that "questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover any U.S. service member in enemy captivity."
"This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him," Dempsey said. "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty."
At least six troops from Bergdahl's unit reportedly were killed in combat search missions after Bergdahl allegedly walked away from his outpost in southeastern Paktika province on June 30, 2009.
Sondra Andrews' son, Army 2nd Lt. Darryn Andrews, was among those killed. She told Army Times that
she sometimes asks if "this guy was worth my son's life? My son who was patriotic? Who was a true soldier? This guy was worth that? I don't think so."
After nearly five years in captivity, Bergdahl was recovering at the Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany where he was being debriefed by intelligence officers and psychologists from the military's Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) units.
"Our first priority is ensuring Sgt. Bergdahl's health and beginning his re-integration process," Army Secretary John McHugh said in a statement. "There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery."
McHugh also made clear that Bergdahl will have to explain the circumstances of his capture by the Taliban or face the possibility of disciplinary action.
"As Chairman Dempsey indicated, 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," McHugh said.
Bergdahl has not been permitted to speak with his parents since he returned to U.S. custody and it was unclear whether he had asked for a lawyer, or been told that he had a right to consult with one.
"I would be very surprised if he's being debriefed without being told he has a right to counsel," said Eugene Fidell, a Yale Law professor who specializes in military law.
"Anyone suspected of an offense need not respond and has a right to counsel," Fidell said. "I would have great difficulty with their doing this without giving him a reading of his rights."
President Obama said Tuesday that there was a possibility that the Taliban commanders released in the swap for Bergdahl could return to the fight against the United States. The five were sent by military aircraft last Saturday from Guantanamo to the Gulf state of Qatar, where their only known restriction was a one-year ban on travel.
"Is there a possibility of some of them trying to return to activities that are detrimental to us? Absolutely," Obama said during a news conference in Warsaw, Poland. "That's been true of all the prisoners that were released from Guantanamo. There's a certain recidivism rate that takes place."
"I wouldn't be doing it if I thought it would be contrary to American national security," Obama said of the exchange.
"This is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington. That was true for Abraham Lincoln. That was true for FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). That's been true in every combat situation -- at some point you try to get your folks back."
"Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he's held in captivity," Obama said. "Period, full stop -- we don't condition that," Obama said.
More than 600 prisoners have been released from since the facility was opened after the 9/11 attacks, according to a 2013 report from the Director of National Intelligence. About 12 percent are suspected of having returned to terrorism.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, on Tuesday joined other Republicans who have charged that Obama broke the law on issuing a 30-days notice for releasing Guantanamo prisoners, and also put Americans' lives in danger by sending a message that captured U.S. troops could be used as bargaining chips.
"This decision to bring Sgt.Bergdahl home -- and we applaud that he his home -- is ill-founded, it is a mistake and it is putting the lives of American servicemen and women at risk. And that to me is unacceptable," McCain said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com