SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Exactly 1,809 days after he was captured by Taliban fighters who kept him in a metal cage for weeks and possibly months during nearly five years in captivity, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl returned to the United States early Friday to a homecoming devoid of any of his relatives and dampened by controversy over his capture and release.
Bergdahl, 28, America's lone prisoner of war in the 13-year conflict in Afghanistan, landed around 1:40 a.m. aboard a military transport plane at an airfield adjacent to Lackland Air Force Base and was escorted to nearby Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
"We exchanged salutes," said Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo, who is overseeing Bergdahl's recovery as commanding general of U.S. Army South, which is based at Fort Sam Houston. "He appeared just like any sergeant would when they see a two-star general — a little bit nervous. But he looked good."
Bergdahl had been recuperating at a military hospital in Germany since he was released from Taliban captivity May 31, in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He arrived in Texas to begin the next stage of his recovery at Fort Sam Houston, where he will undergo therapy and counseling as part of what Army officials call a "reintegration process."
There was no timeline for that process, but it is likely to last weeks or longer. At a news conference at the base golf course Friday, military officials involved in Bergdahl's treatment said he was in a hospital room at the Brooke Army Medical Center without access to television, part of the slow pace of reintroducing normal, stable routines and activities into his life. "Overall, we're pleased with his physical state," said Col. Ronald N. Wool, a military doctor overseeing Bergdahl's medical care.
Bergdahl walked into the hospital and has been eating, although he has started with a bland diet. "Peanut butter is a favorite," Wool said.
Even as Bergdahl arrived, the Army set in motion an investigation into the circumstances of his disappearance from his outpost in June 2009. The Army has selected a two-star general with combat experience in Afghanistan to determine whether Bergdahl violated rules by apparently walking off his post, the New York Times reported, citing three Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was pending.
The officials did not disclose the general's name and said he did not serve in Afghanistan at the same time as Bergdahl. The general is expected to receive initial briefings in Washington next week, and then assemble a small staff in San Antonio and begin regular debriefings of Bergdahl, officials said.
Army officials have emphasized that the goal of reintegration was to help the sergeant resume a normal life with "minimal physical and emotional complications," and the military's handling of his arrival — quietly slipping him onto the base far from a cluster of TV cameras and reporters outside a main gate in the early morning darkness — seemed intended to eliminate any complications.
His treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center is expected to end with a reunion with his parents, but so far he has declined to have any direct communication with any family members, none of whom were in San Antonio, said military officials, who declined to elaborate about why Bergdahl has not reached out to relatives.
The sergeant's parents, Robert and Jani Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, released a statement through the Idaho National Guard that said while they were "overjoyed" by their son's return, they did not wish to make their travel plans public. "They ask for continued privacy as they concentrate on their son's reintegration," said Col. Tim Marsano of the Idaho National Guard.
In San Antonio, Bergdahl will begin the last of three phases of what the military calls post-captivity reintegration, including specific steps to overcome the coping strategies a captive may have developed to handle the trauma of being imprisoned. The reintegration can involve hundreds of people, including family members, members of a freed prisoner's former unit, doctors, lawyers and chaplains. The U.S. Army South at Fort Sam Houston has overseen the recuperation of several released U.S. hostages since 2007.
Returned prisoners of war can face a variety of long-lasting physical and mental challenges, said Dr. Jeffrey L. Moore, the clinical neuropsychologist who serves as executive director of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies in Pensacola. Those range from the medical effects of injuries and illnesses specific to where they were held to malnutrition, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive problems and early dementia brought on by torture.
Bergdahl's outlook on life could have a large role to play in whether and how he can recover from his ordeal, Moore said.
"Character matters," Moore said. "The personality strengths that the person brings to the captivity experience helps them bounce back, and specifically whether prior to captivity they're an optimist or a pessimist."