WASHINGTON/NEW YORK - In 2008, when he joined the army, he was a bookish athlete from rugged Idaho with a passion for fencing. A year later, he was a captive of the Afghan Taliban. Today, he is on the way home, a free man at last.
But a new ordeal for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, 28, is just beginning.
Held alone for nearly five years, without any contact with fellow soldiers, Bergdahl likely suffered deep psychological scars that could take years to heal, possibly a lifetime, say experts who have studied prisoners held for long periods of time at war. "You start feeling an attachment to your captors akin to that of your mother. It's primordial," said Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist who has worked with such veterans since the Vietnam War. "You have to ask permission to eat, to move, to sleep, to crap." Bergdahl's case was unusual from the outset.
Reuters interviews with his neighbours in Idaho and with US officials briefed on his disappearance in Afghanistan, along with US diplomatic cables and e-mail correspondence with his family, produce a portrait of a man disillusioned with war by the time he disappeared and whose bookish interests were at odds with the stereotype of the typical American soldier.
Home-schooled by his parents in rural Hailey, a speck of a town in mountainous central Idaho with just 8,000 inhabitants, Bergdahl was a loner who excelled at fencing and often disappeared on long hikes and bike rides, said Lee Ann Goddard Ferris, who lived next door to the family for 16 years. "This is not unusual around here. Idaho breeds individuality and pioneer strength," she said.
A girlfriend recruited him to perform in local ballet productions. Bergdahl took a lot of teasing for that, said Sue Martin, owner of a Hailey coffee shop where he worked before joining the army. He also spent a lot of time by himself, she said, partly because home-schooling meant he didn't have a ready-made circle of friends.
He enlisted in the army in 2008, without telling his parents, drawn by recruiters' promises that he would be able to go overseas to help people, according to a 2010 Rolling Stone profile.
During time off from basic training in Georgia, when others in his unit hit the local strip clubs, Bergdahl went to a book store, and later surrounded himself with tomes on philosophy and Zen meditation, according to the Rolling Stone report.
Once deployed to Afghanistan, he appeared to become disillusioned about the US military mission there. In his final e-mail to his parents before his capture, he wrote, "I am ashamed to even be an American," Rolling Stone reported.
"LEFT ON HIS OWN VOLITION"
After he was captured on June 30, 2009, many believed he willingly walked away from his post. According to US diplomatic cables, Bergdahl's unit began searching for him that morning when he did not show up for roll call.
Later that day, US officials picked up radio communication between Taliban insurgents who said "an American soldier with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English," the cables said. Intelligence received three hours later indicated a US soldier had been captured.
"He left of his own volition," one US defence official said, declining to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "But we have no idea of his motivation, or what was going through this young man's mind at the time."
Asked whether Bergdahl should be disciplined, US national security adviser Susan Rice told ABC News on Sunday: "Anybody who's been held in those conditions in captivity for five years has paid an extraordinary price." Ochberg, the psychiatrist, said lingering questions of this kind could make Bergdahl's recovery more difficult. "He's going to have to contend with becoming a very public person in a very controversial atmosphere," he said.