'Never forgotten' Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl freed from captivity in Afghanistan

By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 31, 2014

WASHINGTON — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released by the Talliban after nearly five years in captivity, was safely transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Sunday morning, according to a hospital statement.

Bergdahl, 28, of Hailey, Idaho, went missing in June 2009 in Paktika province of southeastern Afghanistan while serving with a unit of the 25th Infantry Division from Fort Richardson, Alaska. 

He was released Saturday in exchange for five Guantánamo Bay detainees, U.S. officials announced.

While at Landstuhl, health care providers will evaluate his condition, begin any necessary medical care and assist in his recovery process. The hospital did not release his condition, although Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- who was traveling to Afghanistan to meet with U.S. troops -- told reporters that the deal to swap Bergdahl with the five prisoners was necessary because the U.S. soldier's "health was deteriorating."

"There is no pre-determined amount of time involved in the reintegration process," the hospital statement said. "The Landstuhl staff is sensitive to what Sgt. Bergdahl has been through and will proceed with his reintegration at a pace with which he is comfortable. The full focus of the Landstuhl team is to provide necessary medical care and a safe environment for his recovery."

President Barack Obama celebrated the news of Bergdahl's release with the soldier's parents.
"While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten," Obama said Saturday at the White House Rose Garden, Bergdahl's parents at his side. "The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind."

Several dozen Army Special Forces troops flew into Afghanistan to attend the handover along with nearly 20 Taliban fighters, a senior defense official traveling in Asia with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told AP.

After climbing into a helicopter, Bergdahl, deafened by the noise, wrote a two-letter question asking the identity of the soldiers who had picked him up: “SF?”

“Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time,” the soldiers replied. Bergdahl broke down at that answer, the official told AP.

Bergdahl was freed following indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban with the government of Qatar as the intermediary, AP reported. Qatar will take custody of the five Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo.

“Sgt. Bergdahl is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan,” Hagel said Saturday in a statement. “We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family.”

A Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Stars and Stripes that the focus was now on helping Bergdahl recover and “there will be time later” to look into how he was captured.

In Idaho, Bergdahl’s family thanked those who had worked for their son’s release.

“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” the family said in a statement. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son. We want to thank Bowe’s many supporters in Idaho, around the nation and around the world. We thank the emir of Qatar for his efforts. And of course, we want to take this opportunity to thank all those in the many U.S. government agencies who never gave up. Today, we are ecstatic!”

In Hailey, a town of 7,000 residents just down the road from upscale Sun Valley, residents have hung yellow ribbons from trees and utility poles and planted a tree in a local park each year since he was held. Signs reading "Bring Bowe Home" were placed in shop windows.

Officials told AP that the young soldier, who was promoted while in captivity, was taken to Bagram Air Field for evaluation and was being transferred to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany before being moved to the United States.

He was believed to have been held along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by the Haqqani network, an autonomous Taliban faction which operates in both countries. The circumstances of his disappearance remain unclear, with some reports indicating he walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan while others saying he was seized by the Taliban while on patrol.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the circumstances of the capture were less important than finding him alive. His disappearance was followed by a massive search of the area, and there have since been a number of “proof of life” contacts. They included letters and videos—the most recent filtering out in January—accompanied by his captors’ continued calls for the release of senior Afghan prisoners from the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

The Pentagon identified the five Guantanamo detainees who were released as:

  • Mohammad Fazl, the Taliban’s former deputy defense minister, believed to be connected with mass killings of Shiites prior to the U.S. invasion of the country.
  • Mullah Norullah Noori, former Taliban governor of the Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan.
  • Mohammed Nabi, a member of the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.
  • Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Taliban governor of the Herat province.
  • Abdul Haq Wasiq, former Taliban deputy minister of intelligence.

A senior administration official in a written statement Saturday said that Bergdahl’s release has been central to U.S. efforts to bring about reconciliation with the Taliban since May 2011, and that Qatar’s assistance had been key. Efforts to secure his released intensified as Obama finalized plans to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

“Several weeks ago, an opportunity arose to resume talks on Sgt. Bergdahl, and we seized it,” the administration official said on condition of anonymity. “This was an opportunity that only recently became possible. With the personal commitment of the emir of Qatar, with whom the president spoke on Tuesday, we were thankfully able to obtain Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.”

The five will be subject to restrictions on movement, including a reported ban on leaving Qatar for at least a year.

“As the administration has repeatedly affirmed, we will not transfer any detainee from Guantanamo unless the threat the detainee may pose to the United States can be sufficiently mitigated and only when consistent with our humane treatment policy,” the official said.

In a written statement Saturday, senior congressional Republicans welcomed Bergdahl’s release but harshly criticized Obama’s methods. The president’s decision to free the five detainees creates an incentive to kidnap more Americans, wrote Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., House Armed Services Committee chairman, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Ok., the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Additionally, they accused Obama of violating a federal law that requires a 30-day advance notification before the transfer of prisoners.

“Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it," they said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the swap could threaten the lives of U.S. troops.

“I am pleased that Sergeant Bergdahl is free and will be returning to his family in the United States,” Rogers said. “I am extremely troubled, however, that the United States negotiated with terrorists and agreed to swap five senior Taliban leaders who are responsible for the deaths of many Americans. This fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take US hostages.”

In a statement welcoming Bergdahl’s release, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would continue its effort to help knit Afghan society back together after years of war.

“As we look to the future in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to support steps that improve the climate for conversations between Afghans about how to end the bloodshed in their country through an Afghan-led reconciliation process,” Kerry said.

The United States and its allies are due to cease combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Obama said Tuesday nearly 10,000 U.S. troops could remain there if the Afghan president signs a bilateral security agreement guaranteeing legal immunity from the Afghan judicial system for U.S. troops there. A national council of elders approved that plan last year, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has balked at approving it.

Email: carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

This undated image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.