After Isolation, Bergdahl Likely Faces A Long Recovery

The medical team helping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl reintegrate into the Army says he is learning to make all the daily decisions he was denied during his imprisonment by the Taliban.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. And I'm Scott Simon. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has returned to the United States. He's at the Brooke Army Medical Hospital in San Antonio, Texas as new details of his imprisonment by the Taliban continue to emerge. Fox News is reporting that Sergeant Bergdahl spent the last two years in solitary confinement. From San Antonio, NPR's Wade Goodwin has more on this story.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Major General Joseph Disalvo, Colonel Ronald Wool and Colonel Bradley Poppen had one message they wanted to impart - Sergeant Bergdahl had suffered extraordinary deprivation and hardship at the hands of the Taliban. And it was going to take some time for him to recover. Colonel Bradley Poppen is on the reintegration team.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

COLONEL BRADLEY POPPEN: Everyone who comes out of captivity will have hurdles to face, again, making choices. Everyone of us decided what to put on today, what to have for breakfast, where we're going for lunch. Those decision-making processes have been fundamentally removed from him. He was told when to eat, what to eat, where to eat, when to go to the bathroom - all those sorts of things.

GOODWYN: Although there had been reports that Sergeant Bergdahl had been held in solitary confinement in a small, dark box as punishment for trying to escape, new details emerged yesterday. According to senior military sources familiar with Bergdahl's reintegration, the sergeant was held in a box for more than 24 months without any direct contact with another human being. He spoke to his captors through a metal wall, and his head was covered with a black hood whenever he was removed. His poor condition confirms his story according to the anonymous military sources who briefed Fox News. That means his rehabilitation could take a long time. Again, Colonel Poppen

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

POPPEN: In general, the longer a person's period of isolation or captivity, the longer their integration process would take. But again, each case truly is different.

DR. STEPHEN XENAKIS: My experience from having seen POWs from the Vietnam War is that it would take him as many years to adjust as they'd been in captivity and sometimes they would still be living with the memories for the rest of their life.

GOODWYN: Dr. Stephen Xenakis is a retired brigadier general and was the senior advisor to the former chairman of the joint chiefs. Xenakis, a psychiatrist, has worked with American POWs from the Vietnam War through Operation Desert Storm. Dr. Xenakis says Sergeant Bergdahl's captivity will pose a challenge for his doctors. It was unusually harsh for its pronounced isolation - no other POWs, not speaking English for five years, no allies of any kind.

XENAKIS: You know, they don't have many people like this. We don't have any real formal programs. He's a very unique case, and they're going to have to learn as they're doing it.

GOODWYN: It became clear in the press conference yesterday that Bergdahl has not asked to see his parents. His doctors say that even before his release, Bergdahl's family were prepared by Army counselors to expect nearly anything and to be patient with their son. Dr. Xenakis's concerned the sergeant hasn't asked for his parents yet.

XENAKIS: I'm a little bit surprised at that. I wonder why that is. I mean, I think there could be some shame and worry and guilt for what they had to go through because of his absence.

GOODWYN: Bowe Bergdahl remains unaware of the political controversy his recovery has stirred across the country. And it appears he will remain that way for quite some time. There's no TV in this hospital room, and the next phase of his recovery involves the sergeant telling his doctors the story of what happened to him over the last five years. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, San Antonio.

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