“Our first priority is making sure that Sergeant Bergdahl continues to get the care and support he needs,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement announcing the soldier’s departure from Germany.
Freed on May 31st in a tense exchange between US special forces and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, the 28-year-old underwent almost two weeks of medical treatment at the US military hospital in Landstuhl before returning to his homeland.
According to accounts by members of his unit, Bergdahl had been acting strangely before his disappearance from a remote outpost in 2009, saying he intended to travel across the Pakistan mountains to China.
After he vanished from his post with no weapon and no equipment apart from a compass, local tribesmen said he came asking for the Taliban.
Several US soldiers were said to have been killed and injured while searching for him in the following months.
Hero or traitor?
During his hospitalization at Landstuhl, German media joined the ‘hero or traitor?’ debate that also raged in the United States over the Edward Snowden intelligence leaks scandal.
Tabloids especially fixated on Bergdahl's parallels with the US television series ‘Homeland’ about a marine captive in Iraq who is later feted by his government as a hero but also suspected of being a traitor.
Bild newspaper even dubbed Bergdahl ‘Der „Homeland” Soldat’ among the 19 stories it published since his release.
But unlike the lynch mob comments that erupted in the United States over his alleged desertion and the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, German reactions have tended to be more measured.
“To drag a man through the mud without conclusive evidence can only be the work of the press,” commented one Bild reader.
“Why can’t America just be glad that this soldier who was caught up in a senseless war came away from this alive?” asked another.
Meanwhile, English-language newspapers published for US garrisons in Germany were conspicuously devoid of references to the case over the past two weeks, even in the Landstuhl area.
Articles and social network postings instead focused on the June 6th D-Day commemorations in Normandy. Or they reacted to other events, advising US personnel “to exercise situational awareness and not to confront demonstrators” at a planned protest near a US surveillance facility by Darmstadt.
Individual soldiers and their families might have an opinion on Bergdahl but they have more pressing daily concerns, a US infantryman stationed in Bavaria told The Local
“They might poke fun but with all the politics they are just not that into it,” said the soldier, who did not wish to be identified. “I think there is a lot more going on in soldiers’ lives than the release of someone or a [prisoner] trade.”
In other discussion forums, however, the mood remained combative, especially among current or former participants of the Afghanistan conflict.
“This soldier needs a speedy trial and an even speedier hanging for treason and espionage,” wrote a visitor to a popular Facebook page.
After his arrival in Texas on Friday, Bergdahl was due to undergo further observation of his physical and mental condition until authorities say he is fit to be questioned about his disappearance and captivity.
“I don’t know all of the details and likely none of us will ever know what to believe,” posted another member of the veterans’ page. “But from one airborne infantryman to another, welcome home, Sgt. Bergdahl.”
By Nick Allen