Freed war prisoner Bergdahl leaves Germany for U.S.: Pentagon

WASHINGTON Thu Jun 12, 2014 6:34pm EDT

A billboard calling for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held for nearly five years by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan, is shown in this picture taken near Spokane, Washington on February 25, 2014.   REUTERS/Jeff T. Green

A billboard calling for the release of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held for nearly five years by the Taliban after being captured in Afghanistan, is shown in this picture taken near Spokane, Washington on February 25, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jeff T. Green

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years as a Taliban prisoner of war before being released on May 31, left a U.S. military hospital in Germany on Thursday headed to San Antonio, where he will receive further treatment, the Pentagon said.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Bergdahl left Ramstein Air Base in Germany aboard a military plane on Thursday afternoon and was due to arrive early on Friday in San Antonio, where he will receive additional care at the Brooke Army Medical Center.

"Our first priority is making sure that Sergeant Bergdahl continues to get the care and support he needs," Kirby said in a statement.

Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan on May 31 in exchange for the release of five Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Bergdahl's initial release sparked a wave of euphoria that was quickly replaced by a political uproar over the release of the senior Taliban members.

Lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for failing to give them 30 days' notice before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo as required by law. Some charged that the administration had essentially violated its policy against negotiating with terrorists by doing the deal.

Some of Bergdahl's former comrades in Afghanistan also voiced outrage, charging he had deserted when he walked away from his outpost under unclear circumstances and was later captured.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that the swap deal was messy and imperfect, but defended the administration's decision to go ahead with it.

"We made the right decision and we did it for the right reasons: to bring home one of our own people," he said. "America does not leave its soldiers behind."

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Tom Crosson, another Pentagon spokesman, said Bergdahl would be receiving treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center "for as long as he needs to be."

'REINTEGRATION CARE'

"He's there as part of his reintegration," Crosson said. "There is no set timetable. He's there to receive the reintegration care he needs."

The hospital facility, formally known as the San Antonio Military Medical Center, has teams of specialists and has been helping returning prisoners of war for decades.

Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, were expected to travel to Texas to be with their son. It was not immediately clear when they would depart for San Antonio from their home in Hailey, Idaho, or if they had spoken to their son.

Military officials have said Bergdahl did not immediately contact his parents after his release, but could do so whenever he was emotionally ready. The officials said that was not unusual, with some people wanting to call immediately and others needing to wait.

Bergdahl's parents have been helped by a team of military assistance officers, including two from San Antonio to help them make the transition to Texas, said Army Major Kevin Hickey of the Idaho National Guard.

(Additional reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Eric Beech and Peter Cooney)

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