Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, with James Cunningham, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, arrived at Bagram Air Base on Sunday. CreditPool photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had departed for Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany eight hours before, but that did not stop Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel from taking a figurative victory lap around this base to celebrate the release of the lone remaining American prisoner of war in the Afghan conflict.
For Mr. Hagel, who made an unannounced stop in Afghanistan on Sunday, the release of Sergeant Bergdahl after five years in captivity marked the high point of his tenure so far as defense secretary, made doubly so by the fact that he is the first enlisted soldier to serve in the Pentagon’s top job.
Like Sergeant Bergdahl, Mr. Hagel was a sergeant as well, when he served in Vietnam. He has friends who were prisoners of war during that time, he said, including Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
“When you can bring one of your own people home, when you think of what he has endured the last five years — my own experiences in Vietnam as we had POWs taken,” Mr. Hagel told reporters aboard his flight to Afghanistan, appearing to struggle for words. “I am intensely happy and gratified.”
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl recounted his capture and desire to rejoin to his girlfriend and family in the United States in a video released by the Taliban a month after he was taken prisoner.
CreditUncredited/US Army, via Associated Press
He said that he was particularly struck by the fact that unlike Mr. McCain and other prisoners of war who knew there were other American prisoners nearby even when they were in solitary confinement, Sergeant Bergdahl was alone, bereft of any solace that could come from knowing there were fellow soldiers close by who were in the same situation. “In this case, Bergdahl was by himself,” Mr. Hagel said. “As far as we know, there were no other Americans.”
Even as new details were emerging about the operation to swap Sergeant Bergdahl for five detainees at Guantánamo Bay — the leader of the Special Forces team that whisked Sergeant Bergdahl by helicopter from the Pakistani border region had been in constant communication with the Taliban in the minutes leading up to the swap — Defense Department officials were also weighing the overall messiness of the case of Sergeant Bergdahl, who went missing from his unit five years ago, amid reports that he walked off his base voluntarily, in violation of Army regulations.
A senior Defense Department official indicated on Sunday that the Army would probably not be punishing the sergeant for any violations of rules. “Whatever he may have done, I think he’s more than paid for it,” the official said. “Five years is a long time.”
By the time Mr. Hagel arrived at Bagram on Sunday afternoon, the sergeant had been transported to Germany, as military officials and doctors determined that the sooner they got him out of Afghanistan, the better. Mr. Hagel said he planned to talk to Sergeant Bergdahl soon, but would not interfere with the sergeant’s recovery.
Responding to criticism that President Obama had bypassed Congress in releasing the Afghans from Guantánamo in exchange for Sergeant Bergdahl, Mr. Hagel said that the sergeant’s health was in serious jeopardy. “It was our judgment that if we could find an opening, we needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life,” Mr. Hagel said.
President Obama announced that Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban nearly five years ago, had been recovered in exchange for five prisoners. The sergeant’s parents also spoke.
But there was some ambivalence among the troops waiting in a hangar at Bagram to hear from Mr. Hagel on Sunday. “Releasing five Taliban for one — I don’t know about that,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Second Class Matthew McGlynn, 23, of Williamstown, N.J. “This isn’t a conventional war that we’re fighting. I’m not sure it’s an even exchange.”
Sitting next to him, Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Kurt Tomcavage, 28, disagreed. “I’m just happy he can get back to his family,” he said. Asked about reports that Sergeant Bergdahl had walked away from his base five years ago, Petty Officer Tomcavage just shook his head.
“He’s still an American citizen,” he said.
A few minutes later, Mr. Hagel walked into the hangar to address the troops. He had just spent five minutes meeting with more than a dozen members of Special Operations units who were involved in the operation to retrieve Sergeant Bergdahl. A senior Defense official said that Mr. Hagel had thanked the forces, telling them that he was proud of what they do every day.
But his talk before the 200 or so troops in the hangar was subdued. The men and women sat quietly as Mr. Hagel spoke.
“This is a happy day,” he said. “We got one of our own back.”