Specifics are beginning to emerge about the five years Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl spent in Taliban captivity, though the circumstances surrounding his abduction and, indeed, his future as a U.S. service member remain murky at best.
Bergdahl, who was promoted from private first class during his captivity, insists on being referred to by his original rank, according to an official who spoke with CNN on the condition of anonymity. He also has so far refused to speak with his parents, which is a critical part of the latest stage of treatment he is receiving from a U.S. military medical facility in Germany.
The former combat captive is expected to return to the U.S. as soon as this week for further treatment at a U.S. base in Texas. The process for reintegrating Bergdahl, now back on active duty status, could take months or even years in addition to the now certain investigation regarding his disappearance.
So far, the Pentagon has refused to comment on his immediate future.
“The Department of Defense does not comment on discussions that Sgt. Bergdahl is having with the professionals who are providing him medical and reintegration care,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby Sunday afternoon. “We will respect that process in all regards.”
“Our focus remains on providing him with the care he needs,” Kirby said.
Bergdahl says he was kept in a metal cage for weeks and perhaps months. He tried to escape multiple times, according to an official who spoke with The New York Times, and was repeatedly abused and tortured by his captors.
Army leadership announced last week it would conduct a comprehensive review surrounding the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, and his subsequent captivity at the hands of the Taliban.
Members of his unit have blasted Bergdahl for his strange behavior leading up to his disappearance, including letters expressing his disenchantment with the military, as well as his decision to mail home one of his uniforms. They see this last act as a tacit admission that he deserted or even defected.
The White House has maintained that it made the decision to trade five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay for Bergdahl’s freedom as result of yet-unspecified health concerns. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday it was America’s responsibility to rescue Bergdahl despite accusations surrounding his disappearance.
“It would have been offensive and incomprehensible to consciously leave an American behind, no matter what; to leave an American behind in the hands of the people who would torture him, cut off his head, do any number of things,” Kerry told CNN.
Kerry said the U.S. “has a number of avenues” to deal with the five former detainees if they return to the battlefield.
Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany say Bergdahl has so far refused to speak with his parents. A Defense official confirmed last week that captors like Bergdahl are allowed to contact their families, considered a critical part of the second of three stages of reintegration. A military psychologist, however, might encourage the captor to wait until they are mentally and emotionally ready to make contact.
The official, who specializes in treating former prisoners of war and reintegrating them into American society, says media depictions of these soldiers, either positive or negative, also influences them “hugely.”
“The more complicated the media interaction the more complicated their reintegration,” said the Defense psychologist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, who specializes in treating troops who partake in what the military calls “SERE,” for survival, evasion, resistance and escape.
Very few people have the whole story surrounding situations like Bergdahl, he said. And former captives become confused about why media reports focus on one particular person or aspect of their stories.
“Even in benign cases, in very benign cases where the general opinion is [the former captives] are wonderful and this is a good news story for everybody – even in those cases, there is a negative impact on a lot of media attention,” he says.
The first phase of recovering a former captive or prisoner of war involves securing them and getting them to treatment, as well as any time-sensitive debriefs. This typically takes from two to four days. The second stage, where Bergdahl remains, includes more debriefing, medical and psychological assessments and ultimately determining into what military status the patient should be released. This can take five days to three weeks.
The final stage can take as much as five years, the SERE psychologist says, and includes advanced treatments to help the patient recover, regain “emotional resilience” and return to active duty service or at least reintegrate with society.
Part of this process begins with slowly exposing the patient to more information about what has been going on back home.
“When they come out of captivity, they have this information that is very one-sided,” the SERE psychologist says.