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Locked in a box: How Bowe Bergdahl coped with captivity

As a prisoner of the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was kept in solitary confinement for long periods. How he dealt with that is key to his recovery and to the investigation of his leaving his post in Afghanistan.

Answers to the two major questions about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – Why did he leave his US Army post in Afghanistan, and how was he treated by the Taliban during nearly five years of captivity? – are intricately connected.

That makes for highly sensitive work by military psychologists and therapists helping Sgt. Bergdahl return to some semblance of normal life as well as by military legal specialists probing the circumstances under which he apparently walked away – which could lead to charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The work is proceeding slowly and deliberately, with Army officials saying very little about Bergdahl’s activities now that he’s back in the United States at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

He’s able to move about the facility, but he does not have access to television or other news sources covering his controversial story. His contact with other soldiers is limited to those treating him. So far, he has not met with his parents.

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He’s said to be in good physical condition, but it’s his mental state that is critical to his recovery as well as to how the Army will proceed with him.

CNN and other news sources report that the Army has appointed a two-star general to investigate how and why Bergdahl left his post. If it’s shown that he deserted, which would involve determining his intent in leaving and a plan not to return, that’s much more serious than going AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and falling into the wrong hands.

“The investigating officer looking into the circumstances surrounding how Bergdahl went missing is expected to begin working on the case next week, though that doesn’t necessarily signal anything about when the sergeant will undergo formal questioning,” CNN reported Saturday. The name of the major general investigating the case has not been made public.

Meanwhile, some details about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s captivity have begun to emerge.

Fox News reports that after he tried to escape, the soldier was kept in solitary confinement for two years.

Bergdahl did not see another human face during that period, senior military sources with knowledge of his reintegration process told Fox News.

Officials said Bergdahl only talked to his captors through the wall of a six-foot-by-six-foot metal box, which was just big enough for him to stand up straight and stretch his arms. If he was ever taken out of the box, Bergdahl was apparently hooded, Fox News reported.

“His mental and physical state match this description – and we believe him from what we see,” said one official.

Recovering from the effects of such isolated confinement – particularly when Bergdahl did not have the benefit of being in the company of fellow POWs, as the hundreds of Americans held in North Vietnam did – can be a long process.

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“We will proceed at his pace,” Army psychologist Col. Bradley Poppen said at a briefing Friday.

This includes encouraging him to begin to make choices on his own, starting with simple decisions about what to eat.

Addressing post-traumatic stress also involves unlearning the coping mechanisms he developed to endure harsh captivity over such a long period, officials say.

“We see them as a normal, healthy person who underwent an abnormal event by relying on coping skills and resilience,” said Col. Poppen. “Our goal is to help them understand that the coping skills they used in captivity, although functional in that environment, may not be functional now.”

One thing Bergdahl eventually will have to cope with is the media frenzy over his controversial release in return for five members of the Taliban held at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Speaking at the briefing Friday, Col. Ron Wool, the military doctor overseeing Bergdahl’s treatment, said, “It’s a slow decompression, to introduce him slowly to what’s been happening over the past five years.”