After three days of sidestepping the issue, U.S. military leaders are tentatively addressing the desertion controversy surrounding a freed American prisoner of war whose case has sparked a tide of anger from service members and war veterans who question the circumstances of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban five years ago.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a statement on his official Facebook page Tuesday, an apparent reaction to the backlash the Obama administration faces in its handling of Bergdahl's release. The sergeant from Idaho was freed in exchange for the transfer of five senior Taliban members to the government of Qatar.
Here's Dempsey's Facebook post:
In response to those of you interested in my personal judgments about the recovery of SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the 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. 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. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family. Finally, 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.
However, some military commentators say, the Obama administration and U.S. commanders waited too long before addressing the desertion question, and now look as if they're in damage-control mode.
The reaction to Dempsey's Facebook posting, published early Tuesday morning, is indicative of the divisions among military ranks about how to handle the case of a young soldier who, according to several credible accounts, left his unit after a guard shift and walked off post before being captured by the Taliban and held as an apparent hostage for nearly five years.
By 9:30 a.m., Dempsey's post had more than 900 Facebook "likes" and nearly 450 "shares." However, the comments section was filled with more than 100 posts, including several that openly challenged the general's take on the case.
Here's one comment, by Facebook user Paul McClester, summarizing the views of the camp that seeks more transparency about the case and possibly even punitive measures once Bergdahl is repatriated:
"Any soldier, sailor, or marine who is unauthorized absence after 30 days is considered as having deserted. Any other person would have been placed in custody upon his return, not reunited with their family. The statement being made to all of the other young troops is that it is okay to lay down your weapon, walk away from your post and join the enemy and you will be treated as a hero in Landstuhl upon your return."