WASHINGTON – Once released from captivity, a soldier like Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl enters a series of debriefings and counseling sessions, all carefully orchestrated by the U.S. military, to ease the soldier back into normal life.
In military parlance, it's known as "reintegration," and Bergdahl, who spent five years as a captive of the Taliban under circumstances now hotly debated, is working his way through its early stages at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
A look, in question and answer form, at how this process typically plays out:
Q. When does Bergdahl get to go home?
A. The short answer is, no one knows. Bergdahl has not even placed a phone call to his family, Pentagon officials say. Typically, a returned captive would spend from five days to three weeks in the phase of reintegration in which Bergdahl now finds himself at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, according to a Pentagon psychologist who is an expert in dealing with military members who have been released from captivity. The psychologist spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
Once Bergdahl is deemed ready to move on to the next phase of his decompression, he is expected to be flown to an Army medical center in San Antonio, where it is believed he will be reunited with his family.
Q. Why does it take so long?
A. Each case is different, and Bergdahl's is especially complicated. That is partly because he was in captivity for so long and partly because he has been — or soon will be — made aware of accusations that he deserted his post in Afghanistan and willingly sought out the Taliban in June 2009. The military psychologist who briefed reporters Thursday at the Pentagon said negative publicity can have the effect of "hugely" complicating the process of preparing a former captive or hostage for his return home. That would seem to suggest that Bergdahl faces a potentially lengthy reintegration, given the firestorm of criticism over the terms under which he was released and the accusations of disloyalty and other potential misbehavior.
Q. What is Bergdahl facing now?
A. U.S. officials won't talk about specifics beyond saying Bergdahl's health is improving and he is becoming more engaged in his treatment program at Landstuhl. It is unclear why he has not yet spoken by phone to his parents. The military psychologist who briefed reporters said a request by a returned captive to make such a phone call would not be denied typically, although he also stressed that every case has its own peculiarities.
Part of the current phase for Bergdahl includes helping him prepare for situations likely to arise once he returns home. That can include seemingly innocuous things like sounds or smells that trigger memories of captivity or captors. That assistance is provided by psychologists familiar with what the military calls Survive, Escape, Resist, Escape (SERE) techniques, designed originally for air crews captured behind enemy lines.
Q. Has this process been created just for Bergdahl?
A. No, it has evolved and been refined over many decades. It has been applied to many returned captives, including Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Durant, the Army helicopter pilot who was shot down in Somalia and held for 11 days before being released in October 1993. The reintegration process derived, in large measure, from problems associated with the return of POWs from the 1950-53 Korean War, many of whom endured great hardships and some of whom were suspected of having been brainwashed by their communist captors.
Q. Is Bergdahl being investigated?
A. The investigation that is expected to examine the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance in Afghanistan, as well as his behavior during his five years in the hands of the Taliban, has not yet begun. The Pentagon briefers said Thursday that the reintegration process now underway is separate from any investigation.
A major part of what Bergdahl is being prepared for now is how to handle media attention, as well as adjusting to the demands of everyday life. He also is being debriefed by military officials on any useful intelligence he may have as a result of his time with the Taliban. Those debriefings are confidential, meaning Bergdahl is supposed to be protected from incriminating himself during this period of decompression.