Bowe Bergdahl's complicated story

Bowe Bergdahl, who says he was tortured and kept in a cage after a failed escape, is slowly reintegrating to normal life. But his father in Idaho has received death threats.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the parents of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, hold hands as they pray at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration in Hailey, June, 2013. Bob Bergdahl has received death threats, which are being investigated by the FBI.

US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is beginning to tell his story.

Not to his family back in Idaho, with whom he has yet to connect. Certainly not to the media clamoring for details about the former POW. But to a small group of highly-trained professionals at the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, gently eliciting details of his capture and years of captivity.

Some of that story has begun to leak out, mainly through US officials who have been briefed on the reintegration process Sgt. Bergdahl is going through.

He has told those treating him that that he was tortured, beaten and held in a box or a cage in darkness by his Taliban captors in Afghanistan after he tried to escape. Taliban sources have said that he fought “like a boxer” when he was recaptured. He may have escaped more than once.

He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and he objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured, the New York Times reported Sunday. He has begun wearing his uniform instead of the Afghan garb he wore when US Special Forces received him in exchange for five mid-to-high level Taliban members sent to Qatar from the US military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Except for skin and gum problems associated with hygiene and exposure, Bergdahl is in relatively good physical health. In anticipation of the prisoner swap, he may have been fed and treated better prior to his release, which was the experience of American POWs released from North Vietnamese prisons in 1973.

The New York Times also reports that Bergdahl was in an Army unit that was “known for its troubles … a misfit platoon that stumbled through its first months in Afghanistan and might have made it too easy for him to walk away.” During that period, both the platoon commander (a junior officer) and the platoon’s senior enlisted man (a sergeant first class) were replaced because of problems with discipline and security, according to an internal Army investigation.

In the week since Bergdahl’s release, his hometown of Hailey, Idaho, has seen mounting troubles of its own. Inundated with critical and sometimes threatening mail and phone calls, the mountain community of 8,000 canceled a celebration of the soldier’s release.

Bob Bergdahl, Sgt. Bergdahl’s father, has received emailed death threats that authorities are investigating.

"There were four specific emails with death threats given to the FBI and they are looking into it," Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter told Reuters. Authorities are providing security to Mr. Bergdahl and his wife, Jani.

The senior Bergdahls appeared with President Obama at the White House when Sgt. Bergdahl’s release was announced. Some conservative commentators were critical of Bob Bergdahl’s appearance – he had grown a bushy beard in solidarity with his son – and he expressed greetings in Arabic and Pashto, the main language of the Taliban.

Sean Hannity at Fox News called it a “Muslim victory call.”

Writing for Newsweek online, Sean Elder had a different take: “Bergdahl and his wife Jani are not Muslims; they are pious Presbyterians. Bob told Time in 2012 that he started growing his beard (and learning some Pashto and Urdu, as well as reading books about Afghanistan) to better understand the world his son could not escape.”

As Bowe Bergdahl’s personal story continues to unfold, criticisms of the Obama administration’s prisoner exchange with the Taliban no doubt will increase. For context, there is the history of prisoner swaps and other means of retrieving captured Americans back through the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration to all earlier wars.

Secretary of State John Kerry addressed part of that issue Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union.”

As part of the deal, the five Taliban detainees released from Guantanamo can’t leave Qatar for one year, and their activities will be closely monitored. One of them is reported to have said that he wants to return to the fight in Afghanistan.

"They're not the only ones keeping an eye on them," Secretary Kerry said, referring to Qatar’s intelligence services.

"I'm not telling you they don't have some ability at some point to go back and get involved," Kerry said. "But they also have the ability to get killed doing that” – an apparent reference to US drone strikes, which increased dramatically in the years the five were at Guantanamo.

“These guys pick a fight with us, in the future or now or at any time, at enormous risk,” Kerry said.

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