Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey tours Arlington National Cemetery, May 23, 2014.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey tours Arlington National Cemetery, May 23, 2014. DoD photo by SSG Sean K. Harp

Dempsey: Bergdahl Is 'Innocent Until Proven Guilty'

With some howling for Bergdahl’s head, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey issues a statement to calm the mob. By Kevin Baron

This story has been updated.

BRUSSELS – Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey pledged that the Army “will not look away from misconduct” in the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, while defending the United States’ effort to recover the soldier “from enemy captivity.”

Dempsey’s statement is the strongest indication from any military or Obama administration official that Bergdahl may face punitive action by the military for allegedly walking off his eastern Afghanistan base in 2009, leading to his capture by the Taliban.

With more and more troops and public voices led by conservative political leaders calling Bergdahl a deserter who subsequently cost American lives – and questioning the value of trading his life for five alleged Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay for 12 years – Republican members of Congress quickly vowed to hold investigative hearings into the matter. Dempsey, the nation’s top military officer, issued a sternly worded answer to those critics on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

“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,” Dempsey wrote.

“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.”

Later Tuesday, Dempsey told the Associated Press that Bergdahl no longer was set to receive another automatic promotion because he was no longer considered missing. "His status has now changed, and therefore the requirements for promotion are more consistent with normal duty status," Dempsey said. Bergdahl has received two promotions since 2009 to the rank of sergeant, following a normal timeline as is customary for those considered missing. 

Dempsey’s remarks, while promising to look into misconduct, are the latest by military and Obama administration officials who have tried to separate the alleged reasons Bergdahl may been captured and the U.S. military’s duty to care for all of its service members, including the responsibility to find and recover any missing or prisoners of war. 

Speaking in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday morning, Obama again defended the decision to rescue Bergdahl. "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. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that," he said.