Bowe Bergdahl release: How hard will his transition to everyday life be?

Before it is possible to learn what Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was thinking when he left his base, as some of his fellow soldiers charge, the military must first help him heal, intelligence experts say.

U.S. Army/AP/File
This undated file photo shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

America’s top military officer said Tuesday that the Army “will not look away from misconduct” in the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, but that for the time being, those questions are separate from the military’s effort to rehabilitate one of its own.

“In the meantime,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on his Facebook page, “we will continue to care for him and his family.”

It is what is known in the US military as “reintegration” – the Pentagon’s highly regimented process for bringing prisoners of war back from captivity into everyday life.

Before it is possible to learn what Bergdahl was thinking when he left his base, as some of his fellow soldiers charge, the military must first help him heal, intelligence experts say, adding that throughout America’s wars of the past century, US soldiers have routinely “done stupid things” like wander off their bases.

“If you decide to go to war, you are also going to plan for things like that,” says Malcolm Nance, a counterterrorism intelligence expert who taught advanced terrorist hostage survival at a US Navy school in Coronado, Calif.

When Bergdahl’s father, Bob Bergdahl, made his first public remarks following his son’s release after five years in captivity, he cited the long recovery process that his son now embarks upon.

That recovery process will have its roots in the training that all soldiers receive to handle a possible capture.

US troops on the forward edge of America’s wars who are under “extraordinary risk of capture” by enemy forces – think Navy SEALs, snipers, and attack helicopter pilots – all receive extensive training in resisting captivity and, if they are taken prisoner, how to remain psychologically strong.

It’s a key part of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training that US troops get before going to war.

As a lower-ranking enlisted soldier in a more conventional Army unit, however, Bergdahl was likely to receive only “Level A” instruction. That involves learning the code of conduct for a captured soldier – stating name, rank, and service number, but avoiding answering further questions and making no statement disloyal to the country – yet little else.

“We teach them that basically, they have to resist to their utmost ability,” Nr. Nance says.

Regardless of the circumstances under which Bergdahl was taken by insurgent forces in Afghanistan, “When you’re captured, your war starts in captivity,” Nance adds. “It’s a battlefield of the mind.”

Because he was captured in an active armed conflict by an enemy not recognized as an organized combatant force, Bergdahl is more akin to a terrorist hostage than a prisoner of war. “We are in a gray area,” Nance says. “You’re not going to be given your Red Cross letter card.”

Indeed, Bergdahl was probably at a disadvantage in handling the situation. More-advanced resistance courses teach US service members to “be prepared to be smacked across the face and hit with a rifle,” Nance says. They also might offer instruction on how to take part in a hostage video under duress – while Bergdahl “had to fumble his way through it and allow himself to be exploited.”

Bob Bergdahl thanked the family’s “SERE psychologist” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for his support of the family in its darkest hours. The psychologist – and the others with whom Bowe Bergdahl will work in the weeks to come – will be integral to his recovery, Nance says.

As he returns, Bergdahl is likely to be grappling with Stockholm syndrome, Nance says: “We expect all of that stuff.” As Bergdahl begins his recovery, “We will bring him back into the Army,” he adds. “We will dress him in uniform,” even if that is an Army T-shirt and gym shorts that soldiers wear for physical training.

SERE psychologists will then begin “weaning” him back into everyday American life. Based on Nance’s experiences with other prisoners of war, he says that Bergdahl “will probably speak Pashto, curse in Pashto, and he’ll talk with a funny accent.”

Regardless of how he was captured, the job of SERE psychologists is to help convince prisoners of war not always inclined to believe it that “you are not accountable for anything you did unless you actively collaborated with enemy forces,” Nance adds. 

An important part of the process from the Pentagon’s perspective will also be the debriefing in which the US military will attempt to glean vital bits of intelligence from Bergdahl’s experience.

“This is hot, active intelligence,” Nance says. “We need to learn lessons from him.”

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