Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s parents sent him a public message from Idaho one day after the Taliban released him in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Bergdahl is being treated at a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and has not yet been cleared to speak with his parents.
“There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you,” Bergdahl’s mother, Jani, said as she fought back tears.
Speaking at a news conference at an Idaho Army National Guard facility in Boise, she added: “You are free. Freedom is yours. We will see you soon. I love you, Bowe.”
Bergdahl’s father, Bob Bergdahl, called the lack of contact with their son thus far a necessary part of his reintegration.
“Bowe has been gone for so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back,” said Bergdahl, sporting the large, unruly beard he grew to show solidarity with his son, who disappeared after completing guard duty at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
Bob Bergdahl compared his son’s plight to making a deep-sea dive — if he returned too quickly to the surface, “it could kill him.”
So Bob Bergdahl, like his wife, addressed his son in front of news media cameras in hopes that the messages would be shown to their son when he is ready.
“Bowe, I love you, I’m your father,” Bergdahl said, adding that he had wondered if his son still spoke English. “But now I hope when you hear this, and when you’re ready to hear this, and when you’re ready to see this, I hope your English is coming back.”
Bergdahl added, “I’m so proud of your cultural abilities to adapt, your language skills, your desire and your action to serve this country in a very difficult long war.
“But most of all, I’m proud — ” Bergdahl then had to stop momentarily as he began to break down in tears “ — of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people, and what you were willing to do to go to that length.”
Bergdahl was the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan. His release, which was negotiated with help from the government of Qatar, has not come without controversy. The reasons for his disappearance remain unclear.
Senior Republicans on Sunday criticized President Obama for releasing five Taliban prisoners as part of the exchange, arguing that it breached longstanding U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters traveling with him on a visit to Afghanistan that the administration had decided to go ahead with the prisoner exchange because Bergdahl’s “safety and health were both in jeopardy.”
The U.S. had indications, including from a video of Bergdahl that surfaced in January, that his health was “deteriorating,” Hagel said. He added that securing his release was urgent “to save his life.”
After Bergdahl is treated in Germany for several more days, officials said he is expected to be flown to another military hospital in Texas for further treatment.
Bergdahl’s parents gave no indication of a timeline for when he might return home, but indicated that they were willing to be patient for as long as it took for their son to reintegrate back into American life.
“Bowe, when you hear this — and eventually you will hear this — you have a very devoted team around you right now in Germany,” said Bob Bergdahl. “Listen to their instructions. We sent them. These are handpicked people. We’re on first-name basis with these people. They are true, they know what they’re doing, they’re here to help you, and they have our great gratitude.”
Bergdahl also expressed guilt for seeing his son come home when other unspecified prisoners from Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere remain detained: “We, as a family, well, now we feel guilty because Bowe is safe and coming home, and you’re still suffering, but we haven’t forgotten you.”
In addition to thanking the American officials who came to the family’s aid, Bob Bergdahl also had a message for the public.
“You as the American people should know that should this ever happen to you, you will see parts of your government you never knew were there,” Bergdahl said, at one point alluding to the special forces who reportedly helped secure Bergdahl’s release: “The [officials] we have met, we are extremely thankful [for]. We are even more thankful for the people we will never meet — and they like it that way. That’s what they do.”
David S. Cloud contributed to this report.