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Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl returns to U.S., will begin process to reenter society

Bowe Bergdahl in good physical condition on return to U.S., Army says
Bergdahl has not yet met with his family from Hailey, Idaho

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is in stable condition and will work daily with medical and mental health professionals as he set his own pace in a reintegration process designed to help him gain physical and emotional stability, Army medical officials said Friday. 

He arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio early Friday in uniform, saluted his superiors and walked into the hospital and settled into his quarters.

"We are pleased with his physical state," an Army official said. 

Bergdahl, from Hailey, Idaho, has not yet met with his family.

"I was on the ground when Sgt. Bergdahl arrived," said Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo. "He was in uniform, maintaining good deportment. We exchanged salutes. He appeared just like any sergeant would when they see a two star general -- a little nervous."

DiSalvo said he spoke with Bergdahl in English, welcoming him home and that they fully understood each other.

Bergdahl, 28, is being held in a hospital room, without access to a television or fellow soldiers outside the team working to reintegrate him. Doctors said he appeared to be in good physical condition and was starting to recover mentally, making choices that had been denied him for years, such as what to eat.

"Peanut butter is a favorite," said Col. Ronald Wool, an army gastroenterologist who has been treating Bergdahl.

Bergdahl was released May 31 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after being held for five years by Islamic insurgents. Bergdahl was held prisoner longer than any soldier since the Vietnam war.

His release has touched off intense debate in Washington about whether the White House gave up too much for Bergdahl and whether President Obama should have consulted Congress before agreeing to release the Taliban detainees. President Obama has said he has no regrets about the exchange, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the swap this week, insisting it was the “last, best chance” to get Bergdahl back and did not violate U.S. policy.

The Idaho native was initially sent to a U.S. military hospital in Germany for medical treatment and counseling, the first and most intense phase in what Army doctors at a Friday briefing called “reintegration.”

Earlier this week, a senior U.S. official said Bergdahl is physically healthy, but confinement in a small space and other harsh treatment as a captive has left him psychologically unstable. He was “struggling with psychological issues” that his doctors hoped to ease before sending him to San Antonio for more treatment, the official said.

Last week, a homecoming celebration in Idaho was canceled for fear of protests. Bergdahl’s friends and relatives did not show up to greet him Friday, an Army spokesman said. It’s not clear when Bergdahl will see them.

His family, from the small town of Hailey, released a carefully written statement early Friday.

“While the Bergdahls are overjoyed that their son has returned to the United States, Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl don't intend to make any travel plans public. They ask for continued privacy as they concentrate on their son's reintegration," according to the statement released through the Idaho National Guard.

An initial Army investigation concluded that Bergdahl left his remote base in eastern Afghanistan without permission in June 2009, although his motive remains unclear. Some who served with Bergdahl said he deserted his post, imperiling fellow soldiers who searched for him. He is facing an investigation into those allegations.

Bergdahl is still technically in the Army and is up for promotion this month. He could return to his unit in Alaska, be reassigned or discharged.

Doctors said Friday that it is not clear how long it will take Bergdahl to reintegrate and that he will determine the pace of his recovery. Generally the longer a captive is held, the longer it takes to reintegrate. He is hospitalized as an inpatient and can’t leave the facility, but he is not under guard, officials said.

"This case is particularly unique for its length," said Col. Bradley Poppen, an Army psychologist with the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program that helps soldiers avoid capture.

He said Bergdahl has not seen media reports about his release or discussed it with soldiers.

"At some point he will be exposed to the controversy and the media," Poppen said, but "we want to titrate that."

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

June 13, 2:42 p.m. This post was updated to include doctors' comments on Bergdahl's condition.

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