WASHINGTON -- Five years a captive from the Afghanistan war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is back in American hands, freed in exchange for five Guantanamo terrorism detainees in a swap stirring sharp debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should have negotiated with the Taliban over prisoners.
U.S. officials said Sunday Bergdahl's health and safety appeared in jeopardy, prompting rapid action to secure his release. Republicans said the deal could place U.S. troops in danger, especially if the freed detainees return to the fight -- one called it "shocking." Another, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said of the five detainees: "These are the hardest of the hard core."
Visiting troops in Afghanistan, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel stepped forward at Bagram Air Field to thank the special-operations forces who retrieved Bergdahl, who officials said was the only American prisoner of war still held by insurgents in that conflict. Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke of the excitement that spread through U.S. ranks when the sergeant's release was confirmed. "You almost got choked up," he said. "It was pretty extraordinary."
Bergdahl's parents offered only praise and thanks Sunday for the release of their 28-year-old son, with whom they had still not spoken.
"There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you," said Bergdahl's mother, Jani, fighting back tears during a news conference at an Idaho Army National Guard facility in Boise, near the family's hometown, Hailey. "You are free. Freedom is yours," she added. "We will see you soon. I love you, Bowe."
Bergdahl's father, Bob, called the lack of contact a necessary part of his son's reintegration.
"Bowe has been gone for so long that it's going to be very difficult to come back," he said. The soldier's father still wore the bushy beard he had grown to show solidarity with his son, who disappeared after completing guard duty at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
Bob Bergdahl said he was proud of how Bowe wanted to help the Afghan people, and how far he was willing to go to achieve that goal. He didn't elaborate.
Questions persisted about the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture; Hagel declined to comment on earlier reports the sergeant had walked away from his unit, disillusioned with the war. Such matters "will be dealt with later," Hagel said.
Bergdahl was flown Sunday from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He is expected to be moved to a military hospital in San Antonio this week. The Taliban handed Bergdahl over to special-operations forces in an area of eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, U.S. officials said. In a statement on its website, the Taliban put the location on the outskirts of Khost province.
Officials did not offer details about Bergdahl's health. National security adviser Susan Rice said he had lost considerable weight and faced an "acute" situation. Yet she said he appeared to be "in good physical condition" and "is said to be walking."
-- The Associated Press, with file from MCT Information Services