BRUSSELS Critics should wait for the facts before rushing to judge released Taliban detainee Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Wednesday.
Some former comrades have accused Bergdahl - who was captured in unknown circumstances on June 30, 2009 - of walking away from his unit in Afghanistan, prompting a massive manhunt they say cost the lives of at least six fellow soldiers.
Bergdahl was freed last week in a controversial prisoner-swap deal with the Taliban brokered by the Qatari government. Five Taliban militants were released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and flown to Qatar.
"I do not know of specific circumstances or details of U.S. solders dying as a result of efforts to find and rescue Sergeant Bergdahl," Hagel told a news conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
The army has announced it will review all the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance, he said.
"Until we get the facts, until we have ... a review of all the circumstances, it is not in the interest of anyone and certainly I think a bit unfair to Sergeant Bergdahl’s family and to him to presume anything. We don’t do that in the United States. We rely on facts," Hagel said.
Hagel had a 10-minute telephone conversation on Wednesday with Bergdahl's parents in which he promised the military would give him full support in "his medical care and reintegration", a senior defense official said. He added that Hagel "wanted them to know that the focus was on their son's health".
Republican members of the U.S. Congress have said President Barack Obama set a dangerous precedent with the swap for Bergdahl - who is undergoing physical and mental assessments at a military hospital in Germany - and might have broken the law.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was asked if he thought Bergdahl still deserved to be a sergeant.
"It’s not my place as a former sergeant in the United States Army, which I am very proud of, to decide who is worthy of being a sergeant and who isn’t and I think any further talk of that is irresponsible," Hagel replied.
"Let's get the facts, but let's first focus on getting Sergeant Bergdahl well, getting his health back, getting him reunified with his family," Hagel said.
"Let's not forget Sergeant Bergdahl is a member of the United States armed forces ... The United States of America has, and always will have, responsibility for getting its soldiers back. Other questions and facts regarding Sergeant Bergdahl will be dealt with at a later time," he added.
Obama defended on Tuesday the operation to rescue Bergdahl, saying the United States was committed to freeing its prisoners of war regardless of how they were captured.
A video released by the Taliban showed a dazed Bergdahl being led by two militants, one carrying a makeshift white flag on a stick, to a Blackhawk helicopter in eastern Afghanistan ending his captivity.
The Pentagon says Bergdahl is in a stable condition at the U.S. Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. Officials have indicated there is little desire to pursue any disciplinary action against him given what he has been through.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft and David Brunnstrom; editing by David Stamp)