Bergdahl ‘has trouble speaking English’ after five-year Afghanistan captivity
The US prisoner of war released in Afghanistan at the weekend was flown to Germany on Sunday for medical checks and debriefing after nearly five years in Taliban hands – a captivity so long, his father said he now has trouble speaking English.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was said to be emotional but able to walk as he was helicoptered out of eastern Afghanistan. He was freed in return for the release of five Taliban prisoners who have been held for more than a decade at Guantánamo Bay. His father sent him a message – but did so in Pashtu, so complete has his son’s isolation been.
“I’d like to say to Bowe right now, who is having trouble speaking English, ‘I’m your father, Bowe,'” the older Bergdahl said.
At an emotional press conference in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday Bergdahl’s parents thanked US officials and the family’s network of supporters and said their son would need plenty of time to recover and reintegrate.
The former captive was like a diver ascending from the ocean depths, said his father, Bob. “Bowe has been gone so long that it’s going to be very difficult to come back … if he comes up too fast, it could kill him.”
The family had not yet spoken to him to give time to adjust to his current surroundings at the US base in Germany, and to become reacquainted with English, he said.
Addressing his son, he said: “Bowe, I love you. I’m your father. I hope your English is coming back. I’m so proud of your character and your perseverance and your cultural ability to adapt. Most of all I’m proud of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people.”
He urged his son to trust the US officials around him. “You have a very devoted team. Listen to your instructions, we know them, we sent them. They are true, they know what they are doing, they are there to help you.”
Jani Bergdahl became tearful when addressing her son. “I will see you soon my beloved son. I love you, Bowe.”
The parents did not take questions from journalists nor directly address accusations from Republican lawmakers that the Obama administration had broken the law and cut a deal with terrorists.
The US had respected the military code that no one should be left behind, said Bob Bergdahl. “It’s true. Bowe was not left behind.” He said that if any other American ever faced a similar plight, they would discover parts of the government they did not know existed. “And you’ll be so thankful.”
The sergeant, who is to be treated at Landstuhl in Germany, faces a long period of psychological rehabilitation, and doctors said they would proceed “at a pace with which he is comfortable”.
But the White House, which hailed his release on Saturday, faces more immediate questions about the deal that brought about Bergdahl’s freedom. Republicans lambasted the Obama administration for agreeing to the exchange, saying the “dangerous” deal violated US policy on not talking to terrorists and may have broken the law in bypassing Congress.
“What does this tell terrorists?” said Senator Ted Cruz on ABC. “First, that if you capture a US soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorist prisoners? That’s a very dangerous precedent.”
As if to underscore that point, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar, said the exchange was a “big victory” for his group. The five released from Guantánamo will be hosted in Qatar, where they will stay for at least a year, under the terms of the deal.
The exchange has been three years in the making. But the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said it was finalised because of fears that Bergdahl was running out of time. “This is a guy who probably went through hell for the last five years,” he told troops on a visit to Afghanistan shortly after the release. “[His] safety and health were both in jeopardy.” He added that the mission was “essentially to save his life”.
The details of how Bergdahl ended up in Taliban hands are murky. He said in one video that he fell behind on patrol, while leaked military cables show insurgents boasting he was captured while using a latrine. But efforts to free him have been dogged by speculation that he may have left the base voluntarily.
In the last pictures made public of his time in captivity, over three years ago, Bergdahl looks scrawny and uncertain in brown Afghan shirt and trousers, standing beside an insurgent commander before he is blindfolded and led away.
Earlier videos showed Bowe still relatively strong, doing push-ups in his army uniform and eating a simple meal in Afghan clothes, but begging for his release. “I am scared, I’m scared I won’t be able to go home. It’s very unnerving to be a prisoner,” he tells an English-speaking interviewer in one. “I have a very, very good family that I love back home in America and I miss them every day that I’m gone, and I’m afraid that I might never see them again.”
Bergdahl had an unconventional childhood in the Idaho countryside. He learned to ride and shoot when barely old enough to read and write, played in aspen forests, and took long trips through the wilderness. His parents kept him out of the government education system, home-schooling him in a cabin which had no telephone but was filled with books.
Thoughtful and quiet, Bergdahl appears to have been an outsider in the army, which he joined looking for adventure after being turned down by the French Foreign Legion and drifting through jobs from ballet dancer to house-sitter and barista. He was reported missing after missing roll call on 30 June 2009, and a huge search operation began immediately, with foot patrols combing the landmine-laced and helicopters flying dozens of missions to look for him from the air.
The scale of the effort left the Taliban wondering if they had caught a “big shot”, but in fact he was only a very ambivalent private, later promoted to sergeant while in captivity.
When he signed up, Bergdahl had envisaged the army as a kind of “peace corps with guns”, according to the New York Times,(http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/14/us/bowe-bergdahls-unlikely-journey-to-life-as-a-taliban-prisoner.html) and he found the reality disappointing.
His emails home from his base in Paktika province near the border with Pakistan charted a growing disillusionment with his fellow soldiers, on a mission he apparently felt was bedevilled by gratuitous violence, racism and lack of purpose. “We’re torn as a family – I can read that in his letters. I can see that he was torn as well,” his father told the Guardian a few weeks before his release. “I think this is the darkening of the American soul. It’s where the guilt comes from, because you are being told you are helping, but you know on the inside that you are not.”
An incident where a child was hit by a military vehicle weighed on Bergdahl, as did the loss of a friend to a roadside bomb. “I am ashamed to even be American,” he told his parents in his last email before disappearing, quoted in Rolling Stone. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the World telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live. We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armoured trucks … We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”