Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a captive of the Taliban for nearly five years, has been released to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in exchange for the release of five Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl, an Idaho native, was 23 went he went missing in June 30, 2009, in the eastern Afghan province of Paktika, near the border with Pakistan.
“On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return, mindful of their courage and sacrifice throughout this ordeal,” President Obama said in a statement released by the White House. Obama is now scheduled to speak from the White House at 3:15 p.m.
Robert Bergdahl, the soldier’s father, tweeted his thanks Saturday afternoon.
“To every single person who worked so hard to make this recovery possible, WE LOVE YOU! GOD IS GREAT AND HIS MERCY ENDURES FOREVER!” wrote @bobbergdahl.
Supporters had planned a rally June 28 in Hailey, Idaho to bring attention to efforts to secure Bergdahl’s release. That event, which is scheduled to feature Carole King, was quickly renamed from “Bring Bowe Back” to “Bowe is Back.”
Bergdahl, now 28, was released to American custody Saturday evening, local time, in Afghanistan. The transfers happened after a week of intense negotiations mediated by the gover nment of Qatar, which will take custody of the Afghans. Several dozen U.S. special forces were involved in the exchange, which took place in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he had signed an order releasing five detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to Qatar. Hagel said in a statement that the Pentagon would give Bergdahl “all the support he needs to recover.”
“It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade, " Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a statement. “Today we have back in our ranks the only remaining captured soldier from our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.”
Hope that Bergdahl was still alive was renewed in January when U.S. officials confirmed the existence of a video in which he referred to recent events.
Still, that video raised concerns about his health, which appeared to be in decline, according to an official who spoke to The Times.
“Not life threatening,” the official said at the time. “He’s been captive for [nearly] five years; it’s showing.”
A month after he was initially taken, in a video released by Afghan militants, Bergdahl said he was scared that he might never again see his family.
After the video surfaced in January, U.S. officials renewed calls for his release.
“Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been gone far too long, and we continue to call for and work toward his safe and immediate release,” said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith.
Obama said Saturday that Bergdahl’s released was occasion to “remember the many troops held captive and whom remain missing or unaccounted for in America’s past wars.”
“Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery is a reminder of America’s unwavering commitment to leave no man or woman in uniform behind on the battlefield. And as we find relief in Bowe’s recovery, our thoughts and prayers are with those other Americans whose release we continue to pursue.”
The president’s statement specifically thanked the Amir of Qatar for his work on behalf of Bergdahl’s release.
Obama also reiterated the U.S. commitment to supporting the Afghan government. In a plan announced this week, Obama said he would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fewer than 10,000 by year’s end. The plan, which withdraws most of the 32,000 troops who remain, seeks to balance fear that a speedier withdrawal would push Afghan forces to collapse against his desire to end more than a decade of war.
“While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground,” he said.
Cloud reported from Washington. Garvey reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.