TOPICS > Nation

How does Bowe Bergdahl reintegrate after five years in captivity?

BY Larisa Epatko  June 2, 2014 at 5:58 PM EDT
A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl hangs in the window of a store in Hailey, Idaho, on June 1. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A sign announcing the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl hangs in the window of a store in Hailey, Idaho, on June 1. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was released Saturday after five years of captivity in Afghanistan, faces many challenges but being welcomed back by a loving family won’t be one of them.

“I’m optimistic, because his family impresses me as being loving, dedicated, energetic and resourceful,” said Dr. Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University, whose specialties include post-traumatic stress disorder and women’s abuse. “And I think the community is welcoming. It takes a village and it looks like he’s returning to a village.”

After his release, Bergdahl flew Sunday to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where his mother Jani Bergdahl said he will be assisted by a team of people.

His father Bob Bergdahl likened his son’s recovery to a deep-sea diver. “If he comes up too fast, it could kill him.”

Ochberg called it an apt comparison. “It’s not easy for veterans who haven’t been captured to return to civilian life and to make a go of the new adjustment, particularly if they’ve been in combat and in situations where health and mental health is challenged.”

Bowe Bergdahl will need a thorough medical examination with the goal of bringing him to optimum physical health as quickly and safely as possible, said Ochberg. “In situations of food deprivation, water deprivation and unsanitary conditions, there can be not just damage to the organ systems but to the brain and the nervous system.”

After his hospitalization in Germany, Bergdahl will be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for more treatment, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters on Monday.

Bergdahl is in a reintegration phase that “runs the complete spectrum of both physical and psychological [issues],” said Warren.

David Rohde, now an investigative reporter for Reuters, was held captive for seven months in 2008 and 2009 by the Haqqani network, the same insurgent group believed to have held Bergdahl. He said Bergdahl likely was confined to small mud-brick houses with the guards — young Taliban fighters — as his only human contact.

“I was lucky, I had a very brave Afghan journalist kidnapped with me who I could speak with in English. Bowe has been in complete isolation for five years with no one near him who spoke English,” so he probably became fluent in Pashto, said Rohde.

“In the beginning, you are concerned you’re going to be killed, but you quickly realize they’re going to keep you alive so they can trade you,” he said. “You shift into a different challenge, which is how long is this going to go on, the world is going to move on without me, and this (sense of) total isolation. … To me it’s amazing that he survived this long.”

In terms of possible psychological effects, no one but Bergdahl knows if he sympathized with his kidnappers. But others in his situation sometimes experience Stockholm syndrome, or positive feelings toward their captors.

“The way it works is you’re just stunned by the capture and often the violence of it and you’re moved suddenly from normal life into this captive and terrified situation, and without having the permission to do the normal bodily functions of eating, drinking, using the toilet, being able to speak, being able to move. All that is denied, and that makes you very much like an infant,” explained Ochberg.

“Little by little, these privileges of life are restored,” and the captive is so grateful, it replicates the comfort of having a mother, he said. “It happens to perfectly normal people, to businessmen, women who were never abused or traumatized before — you don’t have to have a vulnerability.”

The reintegration — or reentry into society of those who have been held captive — can be done in different ways and depends on the individual, said Ochberg. Practices aimed at helping veterans include using acupuncture, transcendental meditation, and the experiences of Native Americans such as sweat lodges. “In general, things are done to create a safe environment, a sense of comfort and not rushing a person into situations that could trigger traumatic memories and traumatic feelings,” he said.

If Bergdahl makes it home in time, a festival is planned in his honor on June 28 in his hometown Hailey, Idaho. His parents are scheduled to speak and musician Carole King will perform, among others.

Sometimes a side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder is muted feelings of positive emotions, which makes it difficult for the survivor to attend holiday celebrations, birthday parties and other events, said Ochberg. Survivors’ reentry is about pacing themselves and rebuilding their strength like a soldier or athlete would do through physical training, he said.

The character, the ingenuity and the dedication of his family members and his hometown will help, he added. “They are ready to embrace him.”

Bergdahl was turned over to the United States in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The administration’s actions ignited a flurry of critiques on Sunday talk shows about whether the handover of the five detainees would end up endangering more American lives. We’ll have more on Bergdahl’s release and the national dialogue that it triggered on Monday’s PBS NewsHour.