Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back on U.S. soil after 5 years of being held captive by the Taliban, but he is coming home to a furor over his release that has divided the country and pitted the White House against Congress.
During his recovery at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Bergdahl was closely watched by medical professionals and shielded from media reports, and has declined to speak with his family. Since his arrival at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, at 3:30 a.m. EST Friday morning, the military continues to emphasize that his health and well-being come first, before any investigation into why he left his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
“He will continue the reintegration process at Brooke Army Medical Center. As [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel has made clear, our first priority is making sure that Sgt. Bergdahl continues to get the care and support he needs,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
“While there, he will continue the next phase of his reintegration process,” Kirby said. “There is no timeline for this process. Our focus remains on his health and well-being. Secretary Hagel is confident that the Army will continue to ensure that Sgt. Bergdahl receives the care, time and space he needs to complete his recovery and reintegration.” On Tuesday, several days before Bergdahl’s return, Kirby said: “Nobody is going to push it any further or any faster than Sgt. Bergdahl and his caregivers are willing to take it.” Kirby would not release specific information about the former POWs health since his release last week in a controversial deal that set five Taliban members free from Guantanamo.
But Pentagon officials said that Bergdahl’s health has continued to improve and that he had becoming increasingly engaged with hospital staff at Landstuhl before his transfer to the U.S.
Army officials plan to question Bergdahl about his disappearance and capture. An investigation conducted in 2009 after he went missing is incomplete without Bergdahl’s own testimony. Former members of his unit claim he deserted his post and that the recovery effort to find him led to deaths of several U.S. service members. A
The Army said in a statement early Friday morning that Bergdahl will undergo “Phase III reintegration” in San Antonio, consisting of continued medical treatment and debriefings.
“U.S. Army South is the lead command for reintegration and will ensure Sgt. Bergdahl receives the necessary care, time and space to complete the process,” the statement said. “Following Sgt. Bergdahl’s reintegration, the Army will continue its comprehensive review into the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity.”
Top military leaders have defended the deal to free Bergdahl and urge caution and patience until the investigation, and Bergdahl’s reintegration, are completed.
“This was likely the last, best opportunity to free him,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said. “As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
Bergdahl’s first words to his family and the public will be highly scrutinized. The release of his personal journals and letters reveal a troubled young man with conflicted feelings about war and his Army leadership in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee called Hagel to testify on the growing controversy over the White House and Pentagon’s decision to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban who had been held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba since 2002. The National Defense Authorization Act stipulates that Congress must be notified 30 days before the transfer of any detainee from Guantanamo, but Hagel said in his testimony that the full details of the swap were not settled until 24 hours before the handover occurred, without incident.
While many members of Congress have expressed gratitude that Bergdahl has been recovered, they also emphasize the importance of questions about the circumstances of his disappearance.
“I am thankful that we were able to bring home one of our own,” said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War vet, Duckworth, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot was shot down over Iraq but was evacuated by U.S. forces. “I believe the circumstances regarding Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance need to be looked into. And if in fact he abandoned his post the military will need to take appropriate action.”
Hagel strongly defended the decision on Wednesday, emphasizing the long-standing principle of “No soldier left behind.” He also asked members of Congress — one of whom questioned why Bergdahl had not yet returned to the U.S.— to recognize that his long recovery goes beyond merely the physical ramifications of being held captive for 5 years.
“This guy was held for almost 5 years in God knows what kind of conditions,” Hagel said. “This is not just about, ‘Can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane?’”
“Let’s get him healthy, mind, body, spirit,” he said. “Then we’ll get on with the rest of it.