The U.S. Army will review the circumstances of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 once his medical condition improves, Army Secretary John McHugh announced Tuesday.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey had suggested earlier that the Army would probe allegations that Bergdahl, who was returned after five years as a captive of the Taliban, had deserted his unit.
“All other decisions will be made thereafter, and in accordance with appropriate regulations, policies and practices," he added.
The Army’s first priority, McHugh said, is Bergdahl’s health and beginning the reintegration process after his long captivity.
“There is no timeline for this, and we will take as long as medically necessary to aid his recovery,” McHugh said, suggesting it could be a while until he is even interviewed.
The Army’s decision to launch a new investigation comes amid speculation on whether Bergdahl deserted the military, as some of his fellow troops have claimed.
An internal Pentagon report from 2010 reportedly found Bergdahl walked away from his unit in 2009, but it didn’t explicitly accuse him of being a deserter.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Bergdahl left a note in his tent saying he was disillusioned with the Army and didn’t support the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl could have been charged with absence without leave for walking away from his base, but if the Pentagon determines he wanted to permanently leave the military, he could be charged with desertion.
Dempsey said Tuesday morning that Bergdahl was "innocent until proven guilty."
"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," he said.
Dempsey, though, vowed that "our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Bergdahl is being treated and evaluated at the U.S. Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The hospital said Monday doctors are paying close attention to his dietary and nutritional needs.
Obama administration officials justified the quick exchange to free Bergdahl last weekend in exchange for releasing five Guantanamo Bay detainees because they feared his health was deteriorating.
The administration has also been reluctant to criticize Bergdahl’s service, with White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday defending national security adviser Susan Rice’s claim that Bergdahl had served with “honor and distinction.”
“Sgt. Bergdahl put on the uniform of the United States voluntarily and went to war for the United States voluntarily,” Carney told CNN. “That takes honor and is a mark of distinction.”
—Justin Sink contributed.