When Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stepped out of a car at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, just before 2 a.m. Friday, he greeted Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo as any other soldier dressed in U.S. military uniform would greet a higher-ranking officer: with a “Sir” and a salute.
“He appeared just like any sergeant would when they see a two-star general, a little bit nervous. But he looked good, he saluted, had good comportment,” DiSalvo said at a press conference at Fort Sam Houston, the base where the medical center is located. He characterized his exchange with the former POW as less than a conversation, a 30-second interaction. The general said he told the sergeant: “Welcome back.”
“He was in uniform as a U.S. Army soldier,” DiSalvo said.
After 5 years of being held captive by the Taliban and amid accusations that he deserted that Army and should be court martialed, Bergdahl returned back on U.S. soil wearing a U.S. Army uniform. And when asked if Bergdahl, 28, planned to stay in the Army, Army officials told reporters that “the goal of reintegration is to return a soldier to duty.”
Since his recovery by U.S. special forces in Afghanistan nearly two weeks ago, Bergdahl has been recuperating at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. According to media reports, he has asked not to be be addressed as sergeant — the rank he earned during 5 years of captivity, according to military policy for “captured and missing” — but rather as private, his rank when he disappeared in 2009. The Army said it will conduct a thorough review into the details surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance. If that investigation concludes Bergdahl deserted his post, he could be prosecuted under the military’s justice system and dishonorably discharged.
But DiSalvo said Friday that Bergdahl’s military career remains on track.
“Now that Sgt. Bergdahl is under U.S. control, his promotion will be like any other sergeant going for any other rank, staff sergeant,” DiSalvo said. “As far as his contract, he’s considered active duty as an active duty sergeant of the United States Army. He’s just like any of us sitting here right now.”
The officials at the briefing were careful not to release too many details about his physical health and emotional state. They emphasized that Bergdahl is a normal person — “just like any of us” — who has suffered an abnormal event. They said Bergdahl is walking on his own, speaking English and eating a lot of peanut butter. He is staying in a standard hospital room, with a standard hospital bed and bathroom (but no television.)
“It’s premature to talk about diagnoses or emotional fragility at this time … to throw around words like PTSD and other mental health diagnoses,” said Col. Bradley Poppen, an Army psychologist. “We see him as a normal, healthy person who has survived this 5-year ordeal … reintegration is more about care than diagnosing.”
“Every one of us decided what to put on today, what to have for breakfast, where we’re going for lunch,” Poppen explained. “Those fundamental decisions were removed from him.”
Though officials emphasized Bergdahl’s normality, they also acknowledged the individualized nature of each survivor’s recovery. But in several crucial ways, Bergdahl’s situation is uniquely unique. He is the only prisoner of war in the entirety of the war in Afghanistan. He was held for over 5 years, alone, with little contact with other people. And while not stated directly by Army officials, now that he is home, he faces a perfect storm of partisanship and non-stop online media.
While many questions have focused on how much Bergdahl knows of the controversy surrounding him and when he will see his family, Army officials emphasized the need for privacy. Bergdahl has so far declined to see his family. They are not in San Antonio, officials said.
“Family support is a critical part of the reintegration process … overall though, it’s the returning’s choice to determine when where they want to reengage with socially,” Poppen said.
“On behalf of the Bergdahl family, while they’re overjoyed their son has returned to the United States, Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl don’t plan to make any travel plans public,” a representative of the family said in a statement read during the briefing.
DiSalvo noted that military liaisons have been available to the family since Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009. “So they understand it and they support it, and right now they’re executing great trust and patience with the mission we’re now executing,” he said.
Bergdahl is settling into his new environment and interacting only with members of the Army reintegration team, medical and mental health professionals. Some of them are soldiers, officials noted. The timeline for his recovery remains unclear.
“In general, the longer the person’s period of isolation and activity, the longer the reintegration process,” Poppen said.
That process, DiSalvo described in a statement, aims “to equip Sgt. Bergdahl with the necessary tools to regain appropriate levels of physical and emotional stability to effectively resume normal activities with minimal physical and emotional complications.” Bergdahl is currently in what is described as “Phase 3” — following Phase 1, the initial recovery from the forward operating location, with medical triage, psychological support and an initial debriefing, and Phase 2, transition to a regional hospital closest to that location — in this case, Landstuhl — with more thorough medical exams and formal structure debriefings. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Alayne Conway described the debriefings as a process by which “personnel gather critical information to develop lessons for future training.” In Phase 3, Bergdahl may gradually be reintroduced to media and his family and other acquaintances.
“We’re trying to go through a process of debriefing Sgt. Bergdahl to understand his story,” Poppen said, indicating that questioning is part of this stage in the reintegration process while also cautioning, “But I will add at this time that it is Sgt. Bergdahl’s story.”
As DiSalvo said in his initial statement, Bergdahl is considered a comrade.
“The U.S. military is proud that we have honored the covenant we hold with all soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen — never leaving a fallen comrade,” he said, “and today we have one back in the United States.”