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Inside the Army's plan to reintegrate Bergdahl

Jun. 2, 2014 - 04:41PM   |  
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. (Army)
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Once Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is deemed healthy enough to travel, he will fly from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas for what likely will be a lengthy reintegration.

Bergdahl arrived at Landstuhl Sunday morning after he was handed over to U.S. special operations troops near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The soldier had been held captive for five years; his release was the result of three years of intense negotiations and the release of five prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

When Bergdahl arrives in San Antonio, he will begin phase three of his reintegration, said Arwen Consaul, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army South.

Army South, which has its headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, is the parent organization of the Personnel Recovery Coordination Cell. The PRCC is the Army’s executive agent for planning, leading and coordinating reintegration efforts across the force.

When three American hostages were rescued in 2008 after more than five years of captivity in the jungles of Colombia, the PRCC helped them adjust to their newfound freedom.

The staff at the PRCC had planned and rehearsed for years for the return of the three Defense Department contractors. Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes were taken hostage by the notorious terrorist group FARC after their plane crashed on Feb. 13, 2003, in Colombia.

Just as they did for the three men, the PRCC has rehearsed for Bergdahl’s return, Consaul said.

“We’ve been practicing every six months since he’s been taken,” she said.

Phase three of the reintegration process will include medical and psychological evaluations, debriefings and family support, she said.

“There’s no timeline to it,” Consaul said. “It’s however long Sergeant Bergdahl needs to help him resume a normal life.”

The key to this phase of the reintegration is giving control back to the returnee, Consaul said.

“They’ve been in an environment where they’ve had no control,” she said. “They’ve been told what to eat, where to sleep. We’re giving them back control of their lives.”

The process can be slow, and it’s based on methods that have been tried and tested in the past, Consaul said.

“These are processes that we’ve had success with from real returnees and [prisoners of war],” she said.

While the PRCC can draw lessons learned from their experience reintegrating the three contractors held in Colombia, “captivity in Colombia is very different from Afghanistan, and the process will be tailored to Sergeant Bergdahl,” Consaul said.

As of Monday, officials didn’t know when Bergdahl would be able to travel to San Antonio.

A team from Army South, the PRCC and the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency — including a psychiatrist specializing in survival, evasion, resistance and escape, or SERE — is already at Landstuhl, Consaul said. The team will escort Bergdahl to Texas, she said.

In addition, family assistance teams from Army South are already with Bergdahl’s parents and sister, Consaul said.

The teams will travel with Bergdahl’s family to San Antonio and assist them as they prepare to reunite with their loved ones, she said.

The reunion is controlled and it takes place in phases, Consaul said.

“It’s very overwhelming, it’s very emotional, and it’s exhausting for the returnee,” she said. “They need that progression of getting to know their family again.”

Bergdahl disappeared June 30, 2009, from a base in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan.

He was serving with 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes, the three men held captive by FARC, stayed with the PRCC team at Joint Base San Antonio for 10 days.

They were coached on seemingly simple everyday things, such as being apart from one another and ordering dinner from a menu.

The men started with pre-prepared meals to choosing from a menu, to going to the hospital cafeteria and, finally, to a restaurant.

During their first days at Joint Base San Antonio, the men, who hadn’t been apart for five years, were put in the same hospital room. They were later asked if they wanted private rooms and then eventually asked if they were ready to move into quarters with their families.

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