BRUSSELS - The Army may still pursue an investigation that could lead to desertion or other charges against Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was freed from five years of Taliban captivity in a prisoner exchange last weekend, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday.
Dempsey also told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his plane that Bergdahl's next promotion to staff sergeant, which was set to happen soon, is no longer automatic because Bergdahl isn't missing in action any longer.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the case, Dempsey said he does not want to prejudge the outcome of any investigation or say anything that might influence a commander's decision.
But he said U.S. military leaders "have been accused of looking away from misconduct, and it's premature" to assume they would do so in Bergdahl's case, despite the soldier's five years as a Taliban prisoner.
Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Army special forces Saturday in exchange for the release of five detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention facility.
Service members who are missing in action routinely continue to be promoted on the same schedule as their peers. But, Dempsey said, "his status has now changed, and therefore the requirements for promotion are more consistent with normal duty status." As a result, he said, other things needed for promotion, such as proper levels of education and job performance, would now apply. That makes Bergdahl's promotion less automatic.
There are a variety of offenses related to an absence without proper approval, and a number of potential actions could be taken by the military. He could be tried by court martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for desertion; he could be given a non-judicial punishment for a lesser charge, such as being away without leave. And he could be given credit for time already served while he was a prisoner.
Dempsey stressed that any decision would be up to the Army.
He said he has not yet spoken to Bergdahl or his parents since the release, noting that medical personnel want him to come to grips first with his new freedom and status.
Members of Bergdahl's unit and military officials have complained that Bergdahl's decision to leave his base unarmed put his fellow soldiers in danger and that some were killed in missions that included looking for him.