WASHINGTON -- The deadly 2002 rescue mission in Afghanistan began when Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, from the Navy's classified SEAL Team Six, fell out of a helicopter that came under enemy fire as it tried to land on the snowy ridge line of an 11,000-foot mountain.
Roberts was swarmed by al-Qaida fighters almost immediately, and was nearly certain to die, but teams of Special Operations troops and Army Rangers were sent to the mountain in an attempt to rescue him. By nightfall, seven U.S. troops had died on the jagged rocks that came to be known as "Roberts Ridge." Roberts' body was eventually found and taken off the mountain.
That costly attempted rescue remains one of the most vivid examples of the military's time-honored ethos to leave behind none of its own on the battlefield. It is a tradition that has underpinned U.S. efforts to rescue service members captured or stranded behind enemy lines from World War II to Vietnam to Black Hawk Down in Somalia and the Afghanistan war.
But now, this credo is being questioned by critics who say it is one thing to risk lives to rescue a comrade captured in battle, and another to take the same risks for someone they accuse of being a deserter.
In the days since President Barack Obama announced the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who military officials say voluntarily walked off his Afghan post in 2009 and was seized by the Taliban, the initial euphoria over his return has given way to accusations that the military took unwarranted risks to try to get him back. The attacks have put the White House on the defensive and forced the Pentagon to say it might take punitive action against Sgt. Bergdahl.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday dismissed questions about whether Sgt. Bergdahl deserved special efforts. "The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is: We don't leave our men or women in uniform behind," he told reporters in Warsaw, Poland, during the first stop on his four-day European trip.
Asked about the circumstances of Sgt. Bergdahl's capture, Mr. Obama said no one had yet debriefed him -- but he said nothing changes the responsibility to try to recover him. "Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back," he said. "Period. Full stop. We don't condition that."
How important is this ethos? "It's more important than a paycheck or a medal," said Gen. James N. Mattis, who from 2010 to 2013 led the military's Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan. Gen. Mattis said a horseshoe from the Bergdahl family home in Idaho hung outside his command's operations center.
The military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command employs 500 people to conduct global operations to try to account for the more than 83,000 Americans still unaccounted for from past conflicts.
The "Ranger Creed," an oath that every member of the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment must memorize upon joining the unit, declares, "I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy."
Pentagon officials initially dismissed the idea of court-martialing Sgt. Bergdahl, saying five years in captivity was punishment enough. But Tuesday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Secretary John M. McHugh said the military would determine whether he had violated rules by leaving his post nearly five years ago.
"The questions about this particular soldier's conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity," Gen. Dempsey wrote on his Facebook page. "When he is able to provide them, we'll learn the facts," the general said of Sgt. Bergdahl. "Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty."
"The Warrior Ethos is more than words, and we should never leave a comrade behind," Mr. McHugh said in a statement. "As Chairman Dempsey indicated, the Army will then review this in a comprehensive, coordinated effort that will include speaking with Sergeant Bergdahl to better learn from him the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity."
Gen. Dempsey's Facebook posting and Mr. McHugh's statement -- which the White House immediately sent around to reporters -- are the strongest indications yet that the Defense Department may pursue some sort of punitive action.
One administration official said the White House decision to draw attention to statements was an indication of the political pressure Mr. Obama had been under since his decision to swap five Taliban detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Sgt. Bergdahl.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Gen. Dempsey also said Sgt. Bergdahl's next promotion to staff sergeant, which was set to happen soon, was no longer automatic because the sergeant was not missing in action any longer.