Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the longest-serving American prisoner of war since Vietnam, is undergoing a staged “decompression” and reintroduction to the outside world that is akin to the slow ascent of a deep-sea diver, according to U.S. officials.
His medical and psychological needs are a priority, but he will also be questioned about the circumstances of his imprisonment or any other details that might yield helpful intelligence about his Taliban captors, the officials said.
Bergdahl began the long process of reintegration — it could take weeks or months — immediately after he was handed over to U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan on Saturday.
The first 24 hours of a captive’s return are devoted to emergency medical care and an assessment of what else he or she needs, according to a step-by-step playbook developed by the Pentagon.
The 28-year-old soldier is hospitalized in stable condition at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and in the second phase of his reentry to society.
A team of doctors, psychologists and others will perform a more thorough examination of Bergdahl and make recommendations about when he is ready to return to the United States, said Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The second phase of reintegration involves psychological treatment to prepare the former captive for regular social contact, and eventually for a reunion with family members. Bergdahl will move to an Army base in Texas for the third phase, Warren said.
The reason for delaying the family reunion, according to the military’s guidelines for responding to such cases, is that the overwhelming emotional experience of reconnecting with family after a long and traumatic absence can actually hinder a fragile captive’s recovery.
The U.S. military has used similar models with a handful of Americans who were taken prisoner in Iraq, as well as with U.S. prisoners released after more than five years of captivity by rebel forces in Colombia.
In Bergdahl’s case, questions about the circumstances of his capture, and whether he effectively deserted his post in Afghanistan, are likely to come long after his health issues are addressed.
Resolution of his military status is the last step, meaning there will be no quick decision to retire him from the Army or discipline him.
Bergdahl’s small Idaho home town had been planning a celebration for him this month but canceled it Wednesday, citing security concerns. Organizers released a statement saying that because of national news media attention on Bergdahl’s story, the event was likely to become too big for the town of 8,000 to manage.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was held captive in North Vietnam for six months longer than Bergdahl’s time with the Taliban, speculated based on his own experience that Bergdahl is going through a “decompression.”
He was reluctant Wednesday to discuss his experiences as a POW, in part because his experience as one of several prisoners held for several years differed from Bergdahl’s apparent isolation.
“In my case, it took about an hour and a half,” McCain said with a laugh in describing his period of reintegration. “But in his case, it’s more severe because he’s been completely alone. Near the end, they allowed us to be together.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.