June 2, 2014 at 6:37 pm

Questions mount over Army soldier's capture, exchange

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (Uncredited / U.S. Army)

Washington — A Pentagon investigation concluded in 2010 that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl walked away from his unit, and after an initial flurry of searching the military decided not to exert extraordinary efforts to rescue him, according to a former senior defense official who was involved in the matter.

Instead, the U.S. government pursued negotiations to get him back over the following five years of his captivity — a track that led to his release over the weekend.

Bergdahl, 28, was being checked and treated Monday at a U.S. military hospital in Germany as questions mounted at home over the swap that resulted in his freedom in exchange for the release of five detainees who were sent to Qatar from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Even in the first hours of Bergdahl’s handoff to U.S. special forces in eastern Afghanistan, it was clear this would not be an uncomplicated yellow-ribbon celebration. Five terrorist suspects also walked free, stirring a debate over whether the exchange would heighten the risk of other Americans being snatched as bargaining chips and whether the released detainees — several senior Taliban figures among them — would find their way back to the fight.

U.S. officials said Sunday that Bergdahl’s health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action. National security adviser Susan Rice said he had lost considerable weight and faced an “acute” situation. Yet she also said he appeared to be “in good physical condition.”

One official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject by name, said there were concerns about Bergdahl’s mental and emotional as well as physical health.

On Monday, a U.S. military hospital in Germany reported Bergdahl in “stable condition and receiving treatment for conditions requiring hospitalization” after arriving from Afghanistan. The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center said there “is no pre-determined amount of time involved in the reintegration process” for the soldier.

Questions persisted, too, about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s 2009 capture. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports that the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters “will be dealt with later,” Hagel said.

But the former Pentagon official said it was “incontrovertible” that he walked away from his unit.

The military investigation was broader than a criminal inquiry, this official said, and it didn’t formally accuse Bergdahl of desertion. In interviews, members of his unit portrayed him as a naive, “delusional” person who thought he could help the Afghan people by leaving his army post, the official said.

The mayor of the Bergdahl’s hometown urged Americans not to judge the soldier until all the facts are in.

Mayor Fritz Haemmerle of Hailey, Idaho, released a written statement Monday saying the city has been inundated with phone calls and emails about whether Bergdahl should be hailed as a hero or tried in court as a deserter, or worse.

A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in the window of ... (Scott Olson / Getty Images)