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.”

What We're Following See More »
“CLINTON MUST BECOME THE NEXT PRESIDENT”
Bernie Sanders Seeks to Unite the Party
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Instead of his usual stump speech, Bernie Sanders tonight threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, providing a clear contrast between Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump on the many issues he used to discuss in his campaign stump speeches. Sanders spoke glowingly about the presumptive Democratic nominee, lauding her work as first lady and as a strong advocate for women and the poor. “We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor,” he said. “Hillary Clinton will make a great president, and I am proud to stand with her tonight."

“MUST NEVER BE PRESIDENT”
Elizabeth Warren Goes After Donald Trump
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a stark contrast from Michelle Obama's uplifting speech, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the rigged system plaguing Americans before launching into a full-throated rebuke of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Trump is "a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone," she claimed, before saying he "must never be president of the United States." She called him divisive and selfish, and said the American people won't accept his "hate-filled America." In addition to Trump, Warren went after the Republican Party as a whole. "To Republicans in Congress who said no, this November the American people are coming for you," she said.

FLOTUS OFFERS STRONG ENDORSEMENT OF CLINTON
Michelle Obama: “I Trust” Hillary Clinton
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"In this election, and every election, it's about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives," Michelle Obama said. "There is only one person who I trust with that responsibility … and that is our friend Hillary Clinton." In a personal and emotional speech, Michelle Obama spoke about the effect that angry oppositional rhetoric had on her children and how she chose to raise them. "When they go low, we go high," Obama said she told her children about dealing with bullies. Obama stayed mostly positive, but still offered a firm rebuke of Donald Trump, despite never once uttering his name. "The issues a president faces cannot be boiled down to 140 characters," she said.

SANDERS BACKER CONFRONTS STUBBORN SANDERS SUPPORTERS
Sarah Silverman to Bernie or Bust: “You’re Being Ridiculous”
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Many Bernie Sanders delegates have spent much of the first day of the Democratic National Convention resisting unity, booing at mentions of Hillary Clinton and often chanting "Bernie! Bernie!" Well, one of the most outspoken Bernie Sanders supporters just told them to take a seat. "To the Bernie-or-bust people: You're being ridiculous," said comedian Sarah Silverman in a brief appearance at the Convention, minutes after saying that she would proudly support Hillary Clinton for president.

‘INEXCUSABLE REMARKS’
DNC Formally Apologizes to Bernie Sanders
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Democratic National Committee issued a formal apology to Bernie Sanders today, after leaked emails showed staffers trying to sabotage his presidential bid. "On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email," DNC officials said in the statement. "These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not—and will not—tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates."

Source:
×