Back in the US, Bowe Bergdahl must unlearn the ways he coped as a POW

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, is in ‘Phase III’ of his reintegration. His parents probably will reunite with him in Texas, but it’s unclear when.

David J. Phillip/AP
Col. Bradley Poppen answers a question during a news conference regarding Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Friday in San Antonio. Joining Poppen are US Army South Commander Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo, center, and Col. Ronald Wool.

US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl spent nearly five years dealing with the fear and isolation of being a prisoner of war. Unlike most American POWs in Vietnam and previous wars, he did not have fellow prisoners to communicate with and who could support one another, particularly following torture and other harsh treatment. He probably developed coping mechanisms.

Back in the United States now, he’s begun what the Pentagon calls “Phase III” of his reintegration, including how best to relieve post-traumatic stress. That typically includes unlearning those coping mechanisms, which can interfere with return to normal life – the freedom to make simple personal decisions, for example.

“We see [POWs] as a normal, healthy person who underwent an abnormal event by relying on coping skills and resilience,” Col. Bradley Poppen, an Army psychologist, said during a news conference Friday. “Our goal is to help them understand that the coping skills they used in captivity, although functional in that environment, may not be functional now.”

Phase III for Bergdahl began early Friday when he was flown from a US military hospital in Germany to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

“He appeared as any sergeant would with a two-star general – a little nervous,” Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo, who is in charge of Bergdahl’s reintegration, said at the news conference. “But he looked good, he saluted, and he had good deportment.”

“Overall, we’re pleased with his physical state,” said Col. Ronald Wool, who is in charge of Bergdahl's medical care.

In general, the pace of reintegration is set by the returnee – making his or her own decisions as the individual regains a sense of control. In Bergdahl’s case, that includes deciding when and how to communicate with his family back in Idaho. Officials will only say that his parents have not yet traveled to Texas.

Bergdahl, officials say, is not yet aware of the controversy surrounding his leaving his post in Afghanistan as well as his exchange for five Taliban detainees released from the US military prison in Guantánamo, Cuba.

“We expose them more and more to events that surround them, so at some point he will be exposed to the media inquiries about him,” Poppen said.

The Army has not formally begun a new review into the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture and whether he walked away without leave or was deserting the Army when he was found and taken by insurgents.

In a statement Friday, the Army said that after Bergdahl's reintegration, it would "continue its comprehensive review into the circumstances of his disappearance and captivity."

The answers to those questions will be key to whether Bergdahl will receive more than $300,000 in back pay owed to him since he disappeared. If he is determined to have been a prisoner of war, he also could receive roughly another $300,000 or more, if recommended and approved by Army leaders.

Before his departure from Germany on Thursday, officials in Washington said Bergdahl would not receive the automatic Army promotion that would have taken effect this month if he were still in captivity. Now that he is back in US military control, any future promotions would depend on his performance and achievement of certain training and education milestones.

Military sources and the Bergdahl family have revealed almost nothing about his condition or any details of his captivity. Jani and Bob Bergdahl probably will reunite with their son in Texas, but it’s unclear when that will be. Law enforcement agencies have been investigating death threats.

"While the Bergdahls are overjoyed that their son has returned to the United States, Mr. and Mrs. Bergdahl don't intend to make any travel plans public," they said in a statement. "They ask for continued privacy as they concentrate on their son's reintegration."

Still, bits of relevant and perhaps crucial background have emerged.

His handwritten journal, along with essays, stories, and e-mails, The Washington Post reported this week, “paint a portrait of a deeply complicated and fragile young man who was by his own account struggling to maintain his mental stability from the start of basic training until the moment he walked off his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.”

In Facebook posts written before he vanished from his military base in Afghanistan, Bergdahl spoke of his frustration with the world and his desire to change the status quo.

But as a Defense Department psychologist told a Pentagon briefing, at this point in Bergdahl’s saga of combat, captivity, and release, “Everybody has a piece of the story, and very few people have the whole story.”

 This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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