American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been freed from captivity in Afghanistan in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban, President Barack Obama announced Saturday.
Bergdhal, 28, of Hailey, Idaho, was recovered at around 10:30 eastern time on Saturday. He has been held by the Taliban since he went missing in June 2009 in Paktika province. The last video showing him alive was in December.
“This morning I called Bob and Jani Bergdahl and told them that after nearly 5 years in captivity, their son Bowe was coming home,” Obama said in a statement with Bergdhal’s parents at the Rose Garden. “Sgt. Bergdahl has missed birthday and holidays and the simple moments with family and friends which all us of take for granted. But while Bowe was gone he was never forgotten.”
“He wasn’t forgotten by his country because the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind,’” he said.
Bergdahl was taken to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he is being evaluated by doctors. When he’s ready, he will reportedly be taken to San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas. “He is in good condition and was able to walk. He is at a base in Afghanistan undergoing medical evaluation,” said a senior defense official traveling with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel overseas.
In exchange for Bergdahl, the U.S. will release five prisoners from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the government of Qatar. “That transfer is happening right now,” the defense official said. Once in Qatar, per an agreement, the prisoners will be banned from traveling outside the country for one year.
“The United States has coordinated closely with Qatar to ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised,” said Hagel, who was in Singapore for the Shangri-la Dialogue.
“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” Bergdahl’s parents said in a statement. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son.” The family thanked their supporters, the Qatari emir and those in U.S. government “who never gave up. Today, we are ecstatic!”
At the White House, Bob Bergdahl spoke briefly in what appeared to be Pashto because his son is “having trouble speaking English.” A senior defense official told Defense One that once aboard a U.S. helicopter, Bergdahl wrote on a paper plate with a pen “SF?” — meaning special operations forces — and the service members on board said back, loudly, “‘Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.’ And at that point, Sgt. Bergdahl broke down.”
Bergdahl’s disappearance has been clouded in questions of whether he was abducted by the Taliban or actually deserted his base and was then picked up by Taliban forces. The senior defense official declined to comment on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance but said he would be questioned about his captivity when he is ready. U.S. officials long have believed Bergdahl was held for the bulk of his time in Pakistan by the Haqqani network. The senior defense official would not disclose how Bergdahl came to be released by Taliban members, but the deal has been in the works for some time.
“The transfer took place peacefully and without incident,” said the official. There were approximately 18 Taliban present during the exchange.
“Sgt. Bergdahl is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan. We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family,” Hagel said.
“Sgt. Bergdahl’s return is a powerful reminder of the enduring, sacred commitment our nation makes to all those who serve in uniform. The United States government never forgot Sgt. Bergdahl, nor did we stop working to bring him back. I am grateful to all the military and civilian professionals from DOD and our interagency partners who helped make this moment possible, and to all those Americans who stood vigil with the Bergdahl family,” he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The responsibility to make sure all of our men and women in uniform return from battle, especially those taken prisoner and held during war, is deeply personal to me as someone who has worn the uniform of my country – and as someone who was deeply involved in those efforts with respect to the unfinished business of the war in which I fought. Our nation has a sober and solemn duty to ensure that every single American who signs up to serve our country comes home. The cost of years of captivity to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his family is immeasurable. Today, we are heartened that Sgt. Bergdahl will soon by reunited with his family and friends, from whom he has been apart for far too long.”
Kerry said he briefed Afghan President Hamid Karzai about “this development” by phone on Saturday.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said: “It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home SGT Bowe Bergdahl.”
“Our hearts are filled with joy for the Bergdahl family,” said National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in a tweet.
“This was a whole of government approach – State Department, the intelligence community, certainly the military, the national security staff – this was without question a team effort… that took five years,” the official said. “We really got traction in the last week here.”
Kevin Baron reported from Singapore. Stephanie Gaskell contributed from Washington, D.C.