By CNN's Kylie Mohr
Despite the bold news headlines, "coming home" isn't as easy as it sounds. Now that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been freed, can't he just get on a plane and be on his way to his family? Not so fast. Bergdahl faces much more than a media firestorm as he prepares to re-enter society. POW reintegration, or "decompression" in Army speak, is a tedious process fraught with potential difficulties, especially for Bergdahl.
Prompted by the vast number of returned POWs after the Vietnam War, the Pentagon developed the following protocol. There are three main phases:
1.) Initial treatment: Within the first several hours of recovery, emergency medical staff evaluate the POW for any crucial medical needs. Immediate psychological support begins. For Bergdahl, this step almost certainly took place on a military base in Afghanistan.
2.) Psychological treatment: Called decompression, this step varies tremendously based on the factors surrounding the prisoner and his or her captivity. Bergdahl is currently undergoing this stage at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest military hospital outside the U.S. Although the family has directly addressed Bergdahl on TV, they have not actually spoken as he is only engaging with the reintegration team at the moment. As of Friday, doctors say that Bergdahl is doing better, but still not ready to travel for the next step. No one knows for sure when this will be. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Army said that the recovery team has been training for that trip for years, practicing ten times with drills involving hundreds of people. Stand-ins for Bergdahl and his family were even included.
3.) Reunion and return to normalcy: The longest part of reintegration, this stage will begin for Bergdahl at the San Antonio Medical Center in Texas. Readjusting to home and civilization has taken as little as 24 hours and as long as five years. The actual meeting of family for the first time will only be minutes long. The key is to not overwhelm an already emotional soldier.
A recovery official for the DOD told reporters in a briefing that a typical reintegration team consists of a team chief, intelligence debriefers, psychologists, legal representative, chaplain, public affairs officer and other specialists. The last, and often least-discussed part of the official process, is resolution of military status where the individual may remain in the military or become a civilian.
There is no precise timetable for returnees like Bergdahl to readjust and no guarantees of a quick and speedy recovery. The Bergdahl family understands this. Just one day after his son was set free, Bob Bergdahl told reporters that, "The recovery and reintegration of Bowe Bergdahl is a work in progress."
In recent years, several POW's have followed the reintegration playbook outlined above: including Army and Pentagon contractors, an Army civilian and a U.S. service member all held in numerous locations for varying durations.
An immediate and obvious hindrance on the road to recovery is intensive media scrutiny. Given the controversy surrounding his capture, the swap and resulting freedom, his life in the coming months will be given more coverage.
Dealing with the press and swirling public discussions are just the beginning for Bergdahl. Other complicating factors include determining relevant intelligence. Given the length of his captivity and who captured him, Bergdahl could be a valuable asset. Additionally, health problems might hinder a "normal" life- or as close to one as he can get. Last Sunday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told CNN's "State of the Union" referred to the "acute urgency of the health condition of Sergeant Bergdahl" and a senior U.S. official told CNN Friday that Bergdahl was physically and psychologically abused.
Given all the steps he has to take in his recovery, it could be a while before his Idaho hometown can reschedule the planned "Bowe is Home" celebration with Bergdahl there. He still has a long way to go before he gets "home" at last.