Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faced heated questions during a House Armed Services Committee hearing about why former Taliban prisoner Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has not yet been returned to the U.S. Bergdahl was released May 31 but is still in a U.S. military hospital in Germany. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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Military officials are facing new pressure to ramp up an investigation into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s 2009 disappearance.
“Why the hell haven’t they talked to Bergdahl yet?” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in an interview with Military Times on Wednesday afternoon.
Miller’s comments came just hours after he engaged in a tense and lengthy exchange with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Miller questioned the Defense Department’s decision to delay interrogating Bergdahl about the circumstances surrounding his capture while he undergoes psychiatric treatment at a military hospital in Germany. The recently freed prisoner of war has been at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for 11 days.
“Mr. Secretary, you keep saying we can’t get the facts from Sgt. Bergdahl until he returns home. Have you ever thought about going to Landstuhl and talking to him there?” Miller asked Hagel in the hearing.
Army officials at the Pentagon say that after Bergdahl returns home, they will conduct an investigation into allegations that he intentionally walked away from his post before he was captured by the Taliban in June 2009. But so far, they say the 28-year-old soldier has not spoken to his parents and remains traumatized by the five years he spent in captivity under the Taliban, officials say.
Hagel showed a flash of anger at Miller’s question during the hearing.
“Well, I don’t know how much medical training you’ve had, congressman. I haven’t had much. And what we are doing is, we are allowing the doctors to make the decision,“ Hagel said.
“Tell you what, Mr. Secretary,” Miller said, cutting off Hagel’s response. “No, Mr. Secretary, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Why hasn’t he been returned to the United States? We have seriously wounded soldiers that are returned to the United States almost immediately after they are stabilized. ... You’re trying to tell me that he’s being held at Landstuhl, Germany, because of his medical condition?”
Hagel raised his voice and responded: “Congressman, I hope you’re not implying anything other than that.”
“I’ve just asked you the question, Mr. Secretary — answer it,” Miller said curtly.
“Well, I don’t like the implication of the question,” Hagel said.
“Answer it,” Miller repeated.
“He’s being held there because our medical professionals don’t believe he’s ready — until they believe he is ready to take the next [step] in his rehabilitation,” Hagel said.
The aggressive questioning from Miller, who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in addition to sitting on the House Armed Services Committee, highlighted how politicized the issues surrounding Bergdahl have become as many Republicans are slamming President Obama for the prisoner swap that led to the release of five senior-ranking Taliban detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In the post-hearing interview with Military Times later Wednesday, Miller would not say whether he believes politics is influencing the Pentagon’s handling of Bergdahl.
Asked why he thought the Army has not begun a new investigation, Miller said: “That is not my question to answer. I was just wanting to know why is he still there” in Germany.
“I asked a very simple question and apparently it hit a chord with [Hagel] because he immediately attacked back at me,” Miller said. Why would that strike a chord? Why is this soldier still in the hospital in Germany? If we are bringing our man home, bring him home. Home is the United States of America, not Landstuhl, Germany.”
Miller pointed to his colleague in the House, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a retired Air Force officer who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “And he came home within a week,” Miller said, adding that in the Vietnam era, “many of our POWs were returning home within two days.”
In the hearing, Miller suggested that Bergdahl should be treated like any other combat casualty. “Have you ever seen a traumatically injured service member brought to the United States immediately upon being stabilized at Landstuhl? We do it all the time,” Miller told Hagel.
“This isn’t just about a physical situation, congressman,” Hagel said. “This guy was held for almost five years in God-knows-what kind of conditions. We do know some of the conditions from our intelligence community — not from, by the way, Bergdahl. This is not just about, ‘Can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane?’ ”
Miller cut off Hagel again. “So you’re telling me he cannot be questioned because of his condition?” he asked a second time.
“I’m telling you that the medical professionals, that we rely on their judgment for his health ... have made the determination and will make the determination [about] when he is ready to move. ... Then we can proceed. That’s what I’m saying,” Hagel said.
In his opening statement to lawmakers at the start of the hearing, Hagel said allegations that the young soldier intentionally left his post before his capture in 2009 had absolutely no bearing on the effort to bring him home.
“Questions about Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture are separate from our effort to recover him — because we do whatever it takes to recover any U.S. service member held in captivity. This pledge is woven into the fabric of our nation and its military,” Hagel told lawmakers.
“No charges were ever brought against Sgt. Bergdahl and there are no charges pending now,” he went on. “Like any American, Sgt. Bergdahl has rights. And his conduct will be judged on facts — not political hearsay, posturing, charges or innuendo. We owe that to any American and especially those who are members of our military and their families.”