Obama administration officials said Saturday the soldier was set free in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, was handed over to US special operations forces by the Taliban Saturday evening, local time, in an area of Western Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, ABC News reports. Officials said the exchange was not violent and the 28-year-old Bergdahl was in good condition and able to walk.
“While Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten,” President Barack Obama said in a statement from the White House Rose Garden, where he was joined by Bergdahl’s parents. “The United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind.”
According to a senior defense official, once Bergdahl climbed onto the noisy helicopter that swept down to rescue him, he took a pen and wrote on a paper plate, “SF?” He was asking the troops if they were special operations forces.
They shouted back at him, “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” Then officials say Bergdahl broke down.
The government of Qatar served as the go-between for Bergdahl’s handover that had followed indirect negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. Qatar is taking custody of the five Afghan detainees who were held at Guantanamo.
Several dozen U.S. special operations forces, backed by multiple helicopters and surveillance aircraft, flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and made the transfer with approximately 18 Taliban members. Officials said the commandos were on the ground for a short time before lifting off with Bergdahl.
Bergdahl is believed to have been held by the Haqqani network since June 30, 2009. Haqqani operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and has been one of the deadliest threats to U.S. troops in the war.
Officials said Bergdahl was initially taken to Bagram Air Field, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, for medical evaluations, and was being transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military facility in Germany, for additional care before he returns to the United States.
The official said Bergdahl was tentatively scheduled to go to the San Antonio Military Medical Center where he should be reunited with his family. The military was working Saturday to connect Bergdahl with his family over the telephone or by video conference.
The U.S. believes Bergdahl was held in Pakistan for the bulk of his time in captivity, but officials said it was not clear when he was transported to eastern Afghanistan.
Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, had been in Washington on a previously scheduled visit when they received a call Saturday from Obama informing them that their son had been freed.
There is speculation Bergdahl willingly walked away from his unit, raising the question of whether he could be charged with being absent without leave (AWOL) or desertion.
ABC News reports that in 2012, Rolling Stone magazine quoted emails Bergdahl is said to have sent to his parents that suggest he was disillusioned with America's mission in Afghanistan, had lost faith in the U.S. Army's mission there and was considering desertion. Bergdahl told his parents he was "ashamed to even be American."
The Associated Press could not independently authenticate the emails.
If Bergdahl were to be charged with desertion, the maximum penalty he would face is five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge, if it is proven he deserted with the intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service.