TIME Military

Where Bowe Bergdahl Goes From Here

Afghanistan Bergdahl
In this image taken from video obtained from Voice Of Jihad Website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in a vehicle guarded by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. Uncredited—AP

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is just days into what could be months or years of recovery

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arrived at a German hospital three days ago, which means he’s just finished the minimum 72-hour decompression period of his “Phase III Reintegration.”

What does this mean? It’s part of a three-step process to Bergdahl’s reintegration into American society. For someone who’s been gone for five years—one of the longest-held POWs ever treated by the U.S. Southern Command—that process is bound to be a long one.

Phase I, initial recovery, occurs “at the forward operating location within hours of recovery.” In Bergdahl’s case this was likely on a military base in Afghanistan. It involves “medical triage, psychological support and tactical debriefing for time sensitive information,” according to a fact sheet given to TIME by the U.S. Southern Command.

Phase II is called “decompression” and it happens in a regional hospital — Landstuhl Medical Center, in this case. It lasts a minimum of 72 hours, but it can last longer depending on the medical and psychological needs of the POW. There is no indication of how long Bergdahl will stay in Germany. When he’s ready, he’ll move on to Phase III, which will happen at Brooks Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas.

Bergdahl’s parents had yet to even speak to him by phone as of Tuesday evening, according to Idaho National Guard Spokesman Timothy Marsano, who has acted as the family’s spokesman for years. After appearing alongside President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden Saturday, Bergdahl’s parents have returned home to Hailey, Idaho. When their son is ready, they will meet him in Texas, where they will spend months helping with his recovery as he enters Phase III.

Phase III is the longest part of reintegration. It involves “establish a perception of control of their life,” having “their emotions normalized” and reengaging “in a healthy life style with family, socially and with work.” It also involves gathering “time sensitive” and “strategic intelligence” and “evidence” to “prosecute criminals.”

Southern Command, which deals with all reintegration cases, developed this protocol after the Vietnam War to help with the flood of hundreds of returned POWs. Since 2007, they’ve treated an Army contractor held hostage in Ethiopia for three months, three Pentagon contractors held in Colombia for more than 5 years, an Army civilian held in Iraq for two months and a U.S. service member held in Colombia for over four months.

“So, yes, obviously this will be one of our longer cases,” says Col. Hans Bush, director of public affairs for U.S. Army South.

Bergdahl’s road home is complicated by an Army investigation into whether he defected or should be held on charges of going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) the June, 2009 night he walked away from his unit in Afghanistan. Normally, POWs who successfully finish Phase 3 return to service. Given the circumstances, though, Bergdahl could be returning to a court martial and potential jail time.

All of which is to say, Bergdahl almost surely won’t make it home for the June 28 “Bowe Is Home” celebration being planned in Haley to mark his release. The celebration was originally planned as a “Bring Bowe Back” event. So, while many questions remain, his family and friends can celebrate that he is, at least partway, back.

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