The Difficult Reintegration of American POW Bowe Bergdahl

Prisoners returning from Vietnam had a support system that the soldier released by the Taliban lacks.

National Journal
Clara Ritger
June 19, 2014, 4:34 p.m.

In 1973, Lt. Cm­dr. John Mc­Cain pub­lished a first-per­son ac­count of his more than five years in cap­tiv­ity in Vi­et­nam.

“As far as this busi­ness of sol­it­ary con­fine­ment goes,” Mc­Cain wrote in U.S. News & World Re­port, “the most im­port­ant thing for sur­viv­al is com­mu­nic­a­tion with someone, even if it’s only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It makes all the dif­fer­ence.”

Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl is the longest-held cap­tive to be re­turned to the United States since Vi­et­nam. Last week, the 28-year-old Idaho­an ar­rived at the Brooke Army Med­ic­al Cen­ter in Fort Sam Hou­s­ton, Texas, where he is be­ing eased back in­to life out­side of cap­tiv­ity.

Like now-Sen. Mc­Cain, Ber­g­dahl was held for more than five years. But un­like the Vi­et­nam pris­on­ers of war, Ber­g­dahl had no con­tact with fel­low Amer­ic­an sol­diers. That’s one of the reas­ons ex­perts who have worked with former cap­tives say they ex­pect Ber­g­dahl’s re­cov­ery to be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult.

“He has a very long road ahead of him to re­in­teg­ra­tion and re­cov­ery,” said Bri­an En­g­dahl, a psy­cho­logy pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Min­nesota who spe­cial­izes in PTSD and vet­er­ans re­search and has sur­veyed former POWs about the long-term ef­fects of cap­tiv­ity on men­tal health. “If it is true that he was held in severe sol­it­ary-con­fine­ment con­di­tions, the world — even the con­trolled en­vir­on­ment he is now in — will be very over­whelm­ing.”

As the psy­cho­lo­gists and U.S. Army South per­son­nel tasked with Ber­g­dahl’s re­in­teg­ra­tion learn more about how he sur­vived in the hands of the Taliban-af­fil­i­ated Haqqani Net­work, they will also un­cov­er how much of the last five years he missed. In that time, smart­phones and Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance found their way in­to the lives of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans, de­vel­op­ments that may not be part of Ber­g­dahl’s know­ledge.

That in­cludes the neg­at­ive pub­lic re­ac­tion to the cir­cum­stances of his re­lease. The Army an­nounced earli­er this week that they are start­ing to ex­pose Ber­g­dahl to me­dia re­ports about the deal that let five dan­ger­ous de­tain­ees out of Guantanamo Bay and promp­ted a con­gres­sion­al out­cry over na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

Last­ing neg­at­ive pub­lic opin­ion could hamper Ber­g­dahl’s re­cov­ery, based on the ex­per­i­ences of the POWs from past wars. Op­er­a­tion Home­com­ing, the or­gan­ized wel­com­ing and re­pat­ri­ation of 566 Vi­et­nam POWs in 1973, marked a mo­ment when the vet­er­ans were treated as her­oes — a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt by the De­fense De­part­ment to pre­vent a re­peat of the af­ter­math of the Korean War, En­g­dahl said. Two dec­ades earli­er, the more than 4,400 Korean War POWs who re­turned to the U.S. were treated with sus­pi­cion of brain­wash­ing by the en­emy and many felt shame and hu­mi­li­ation for hav­ing failed a mis­sion and been cap­tured.

“How people are wel­comed back is a really im­port­ant piece of how well they’re do­ing, which is one of the con­cerns for Ber­g­dahl,” said Elspeth Camer­on Ritch­ie, a former Army psy­chi­at­rist who worked on men­tal health is­sues in the Army Sur­geon Gen­er­al’s Of­fice, and cur­rently serves as the chief clin­ic­al of­ficer of the Dis­trict of Columbia’s De­part­ment of Men­tal Health. “So far, it doesn’t look good.”

By the early 1970s, the mil­it­ary had a sys­tem in place to mon­it­or the psy­cho­lo­gic­al trauma of cap­tiv­ity, and the Robert E. Mitchell Cen­ter for Re­pat­ri­ated POW Stud­ies loc­ated in Pensa­cola, Fla., holds the only ex­ist­ing lon­git­ud­in­al study of the long-term med­ic­al and psy­cho­lo­gic­al ef­fects of posttrau­mat­ic stress on POWs from the Vi­et­nam, Gulf, and Ir­aq Wars.

The dif­fer­ences among the groups of POWs from Amer­ica’s vari­ous wars is stark: Ap­prox­im­ately 30 per­cent of the Vi­et­nam War re­pat­ri­ates have been dia­gnosed with PTSD, ac­cord­ing to the Mitchell Cen­ter’s Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Jef­frey Moore, while En­g­dahl’s re­search found life­time pre­val­ence of PTSD among Korean War POWs to be 67 per­cent.

Be­cause the Vi­et­nam POWs had been held for much longer than those of Korea and WWII — the longest Vi­et­nam POW re­mained cap­tive for nearly nine years — Moore said the mil­it­ary and their fam­il­ies were told to ex­pect them to re­turn with severe psy­chi­at­ric ill­nesses.

“That was totally wrong,” he said. “The vast ma­jor­ity of re­turn­ing POWs were not only phys­ic­ally and psy­chi­at­ric­ally healthy, but re­mained on act­ive duty and re­turned to their pre-cap­tiv­ity jobs as avi­at­ors.” Moore es­tim­ates that 80 to 85 per­cent of Vi­et­nam POWs re­turned to act­ive flight status. 

Pub­lic re­cep­tion and con­di­tions of con­fine­ment aren’t the only factors that play in­to how well the re­turned cap­tives re­turned to “nor­mal” life; rank in the mil­it­ary also mat­ters, Moore says. “The older the of­ficer or en­lis­ted per­son, the more likely they have many years of ser­vice pri­or to cap­tiv­ity and the more likely that their iden­tity in­cludes serving un­til re­tire­ment,” he wrote in an email.

En­g­dahl said the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of the Vi­et­nam POWs stand out and are re­lated to the way they re­covered. And this has a bear­ing on Ber­g­dahl. “As a group, [Vi­et­nam POWs] were col­lege-edu­cated, they were older, they were of­ficers, they were mar­ried,” En­g­dahl said. “They were a more un­usu­al group com­pared to oth­er POWs, and cer­tainly un­usu­al com­pared to Ber­g­dahl. He signed up for only a few years. “

Cer­tainly, it is pos­sible Ber­g­dahl would re­turn to ser­vice. “The goal of re­in­teg­ra­tion is to re­turn a sol­dier to duty,” Col. Brad­ley Pop­pen said last week at a press con­fer­ence after Ber­g­dahl landed on U.S. soil. Pop­pen is a psy­cho­lo­gist trained in the Sur­viv­al, Eva­sion, Res­ist­ance, and Es­cape mil­it­ary pro­gram and is as­signed to help Ber­g­dahl re­in­teg­rate.

But be­cause the cir­cum­stances of Ber­g­dahl’s dis­ap­pear­ance are un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion by the Army, Ber­g­dahl might not have that chance. If he is found to be a desert­er, Ber­g­dahl could be dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged from the mil­it­ary, if not pun­ished for a crime.

Even if he is gran­ted the op­tion of re­new­ing his con­tract with the Army, Ritch­ie says it’s un­likely that he would.

“For re­in­teg­ra­tion, the suc­cess­ful ex­per­i­ence as a ci­vil­ian is also a goal,” she said. “I think it would be very hard for him to go back to duty with oth­er sol­diers who were angry that sol­diers died search­ing for him.”

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