As Bowe Bergdahl Heals, Details Emerge of His Captivity
By ERIC SCHMITTJUNE 7, 2014
WASHINGTON — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has told medical officials that his captors locked him in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape, and while military doctors say he now is physically able to travel he is not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family, according to American officials who have been briefed on his condition.
Sergeant Bergdahl, who was released last Saturday to American commandos in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains in a military hospital in Germany without access to news media — and thus is oblivious to the raging criticism from some in Congress about the prisoner swap and even from members of his former platoon who say he deserted them. He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured nearly five years ago after walking off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.
While medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.
“Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,” said one American official who has been briefed on the sergeant’s condition.
From the initial briefings given to senior military and civilian officials in the past week, Sergeant Bergdahl, 28, in some ways seems healthier than expected. He suffers from skin and gum disorders typical of poor hygiene and exposure, but otherwise is physically sound, one official said. He weighs about 160 pounds on a 5-foot-9 frame, and is sleeping about seven hours a night.
He shows few if any signs of the malnourishment and other ailments that Obama administration officials said he was suffering when they saw a video of him that the Taliban made in December and released a month later — a video so alarming, American officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority. As talks for Sergeant Bergdahl’s release proceeded after that, his captors may have fed him better, allowed him greater movement and even brought him medical care in preparation for his departure, American officials said.
But Sergeant Bergdahl’s relatively stable health may be cited by those who object to the prisoner swap and have said his condition should not have been grounds for the administration to move rapidly ahead with releasing the Guantánamo detainees without informing Congress.
Last week, he took a short walk just outside his private room at Landstuhl, an American official said. By midweek, he put on his Army uniform for the first time in five years, and was taking longer strolls through the hospital corridors, still conversing only with the team of specialists assigned to help him. The preliminary reports emerging from his doctors and other specialists in Germany offer the most detailed account so far of Sergeant Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition after a week in recovery from an ordeal whose ending has ignited angry reactions from soldiers in his former unit, members of Congress who accuse President Obama of failing to inform them of the secret talks to free the soldier, and other critics who say liberating the Taliban detainees amounts to bargaining with terrorists.
Two American officials, including one senior Defense Department official, who have been briefed on the reports spoke Saturday on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on the public release of information about Sergeant Bergdahl’s health and an impending investigation into any possible misconduct surrounding the circumstance of his leaving the outpost.
A statement from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Friday said Sergeant Bergdahl was showing “signs of improvement,” was talking with the medical staff, and was “becoming more engaged in his treatment-care plan.” But the statement gave no hint when Sergeant Bergdahl would leave for the next destination in a multistep process: an evaluation at an Army medical center in Texas and a reunion with his family.
Late Saturday, the F.B.I. said the Bergdahl family in Idaho had received threats. Federal agents, working with state and local law enforcement authorities, were “taking each threat seriously,” an F.B.I. statement said. Officials declined to give other details.
This week, the doctors have been treating Sergeant Bergdahl for possible abuse at the hands of his captors, first the Taliban and later the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned militant group that held him at one or more locations in the mountainous tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, American intelligence officials have said.
“He’s said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months,” said one American official. CNN reported Friday that Sergeant Bergdahl said he was held in a metal box or cage, but the officials on Saturday offered new details. He was kept there apparently as punishment for one or possibly two attempted escapes, as first reported by the Daily Beast website last week and confirmed by an American official.
“It’s safe to assume” that Sergeant Bergdahl was “held in harsh conditions,” a senior Defense Department official said Saturday. “These are Taliban, not wet nurses.” Details of other mistreatment were not released.
When the medical specialists deem Sergeant Bergdahl ready, his next step will be longer-term therapy and counseling at a military medical center in San Antonio before a carefully managed homecoming in Hailey, Idaho. At some point, he will speak by phone with his family, and be reunited with them.
Officials would not disclose if Sergeant Bergdahl has made any special requests. One thing, however, that does rub him wrong is when hospital staff call him “sergeant,” the result of two automatic promotions while a captive.
“He says, ‘Don’t call me that,’ ” said one American official. “ ‘I didn’t go before the boards. I didn’t earn it.’ ”