Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has told medical officials that his captors locked him in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks at a time as punishment for trying to escape, according to U.S. officials who have been briefed on his condition.
Although military doctors say he now is physically able to travel, he is not yet emotionally ready for the pressures of reuniting with his family, the officials say.
Bergdahl, who was released May 31 to U.S. commandos in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains in a military hospital in Germany without access to news media — and thus is oblivious to the raging criticism from some in Congress about the prisoner swap and even from members of his former platoon who say he deserted. He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, an official said.
Although medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.
“Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,” said one U.S. official who has been briefed on the sergeant’s condition.
From the briefings given senior military and civilian officials in the last few days, Bergdahl, 28, in some ways seems healthier than expected. He has skin and gum disorders typical of poor hygiene and exposure, but otherwise is physically sound, one official said.
He weighs about 160 pounds on a 5-foot-9-inch frame and is sleeping about seven hours a night.
He shows few if any signs of the malnourishment and other ailments that Obama administration officials said he had when they saw a video of Bergdahl that the Taliban made in December and released a month later — a video so alarming, U.S. officials have said, it made his release an urgent priority.
As talks for Bergdahl’s release proceeded after that, his captors may have fed him better, allowed him greater movement and even brought him medical care in preparation for his departure, U.S. officials said.
But Bergdahl’s relatively stable health might be cited by those who object to the Taliban prisoner swap and have said his condition should not have been grounds for the administration to move rapidly ahead without informing Congress.
A few days ago, he took a short walk just outside his private room at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. official said. By the middle of the week, he had put on his Army uniform for the first time in five years and was taking longer strolls through the hospital corridors, still conversing only with the team of specialists assigned to help him.
The preliminary reports emerging from his doctors and other specialists in Germany offer the most detailed account so far of Bergdahl’s physical and mental condition after a week in recovery from an ordeal whose ending has ignited angry reactions from soldiers in his former unit, members of Congress who accuse President Barack Obama of failing to inform them of the secret talks to free the soldier, and other critics who say liberating the Taliban detainees amounts to bargaining with terrorists.
Two U.S. officials, including one senior Defense Department official, who have been briefed on the reports spoke Saturday on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on the public release of information about Bergdahl’s health and an impending investigation into any possible misconduct surrounding the circumstances of his leaving the outpost.
A statement from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center on Friday said Bergdahl was showing “signs of improvement,” was talking with the medical staff and was “becoming more engaged in his treatment care plan.”
But the statement gave no hint when Bergdahl would leave for the next destination, an evaluation at an Army medical center in Texas and a reunion with his family.
This past week, the doctors treated Bergdahl for possible abuse at the hands of his captors, first the Taliban and later the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned militant group that held Bergdahl at one or more locations in the mountainous tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials have said.
“He’s said that they kept him in a shark cage in total darkness for weeks, possibly months,” said one U.S. official.
CNN reported Friday that Bergdahl said he was held in a metal box or cage, but the officials Saturday offered new details. He was kept there apparently as punishment for one or possibly two attempted escapes, as first reported by the Daily Beast website and confirmed by a U.S. official.
“It’s safe to assume” that Bergdahl was “held in harsh conditions,” a senior Defense Department official said Saturday. “These are Taliban, not wet nurses.”
Details of any other mistreatment were not released.
When the medical specialists deem Bergdahl ready, his next step will be longer-term therapy and counseling at a military medical center in San Antonio before culminating in a carefully managed homecoming in Hailey, Idaho.
At some point he will speak by phone with his family and be reunited with them.
Until then, Bergdahl — the only U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan — is trying to put his life back together a step at a time, officials said.
Officials would not disclose whether Bergdahl has made any requests. One thing, however, that does rub him wrong is when hospital staff members call him “sergeant,” the result of two automatic promotions while he was in captivity.
“He says, ‘Don’t call me that,’” one U.S. official said. “‘I didn’t go before the boards. I didn’t earn it.’”