(CNN) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last American prisoner of war, returned home early Friday morning, his hero’s welcome supplanted by a controversial prisoner swap and his reputation tarnished by accusations he was a deserter.
He arrived in San Antonio from a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he’d been recuperating since his release May 31 in exchange for five Taliban figures held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The 28-year-old Bergdahl, the longest-held American soldier since the Vietnam War, was taken to the San Antonio Military Medical Center.
“The Army will continue to ensure that Sgt. Bergdahl receives the care, time and space he needs to complete his recovery and reintegration,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
Why isn’t Bergdahl speaking to family?
Official: Bergdahl returning to the US
This next phase of his recovery will likely not be as intense as what he underwent at the U.S. military hospital in Germany, Chris Heben, a former Navy SEAL, told CNN.
“Emotionally, it’s probably almost surreal for him,” Heben said. “He’s back in the U.S., and he’s no longer under that intense microscope where he was at Landstuhl from a medical standpoint of psychiatric evaluation”
Bergdahl’s full physical recovery may take months; his public rehabilitation will likely take longer.
The swap that freed Bergdahl has stirred up a political storm in Washington. And almost-daily revelations about Bergdahl’s time in Afghanistan have not helped matters.
“Everybody has a piece of the story, and very few people have the whole story,” a Defense Department psychologist told reporters.
The backlash has gotten so bad that a public celebration in his hometown of Hailey, Idaho — one that the 8,000 residents there had waited five years for — has been scrapped for fear of protests.
“It isn’t over for us,” Bergdahl’s father, Bob, told reporters last week. “In many ways, it’s just beginning for Jani and I, and our family. There’s a long process here.”
Bergdahl went missing on June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where he was deployed with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
Several veterans and soldiers call him a deserter who walked off his base.
An Army fact-finding investigation conducted in the months after his disappearance concluded he left his outpost deliberately and of his own free will, according to an official who was briefed on the report.
The Army has no definitive finding that Bergdahl deserted because that would require knowing his intent — something officials couldn’t learn without talking to the soldier, a U.S. military official told CNN.
On Thursday, The Daily Beast published two letters the solider reportedly wrote to his family while imprisoned by the Taliban.
In the letters — dated 2012 and 2013 — Bergdahl discusses his life and partially explains why he disappeared.
“Leadership was lacking, if not non-existent,” he wrote.. The conditions were bad and looked to be getting worse for the men that where actuly (sic) the ones risking thier (sic) lives from attack,” he wrote.
“If this letter makes it to the U.S.A., tell those involved in the investigation that there are more sides to the cittuwation (sic),” Bergdahl said. “Please tell D.C. to wait for all evadince (sic) to come in.”
Heben, the former Navy SEAL, said the letters could hold clues about what happened to Bergdahl.
“I think he’s planting a seed of justification for why he went AWOL and why he abandoned his post,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, in an interview on CNN’s “New Day,” said his advice is to discount anything that Bergdahl wrote while in captivity.
“In that situation, it’s clear his captors had the ability to force him to write whatever they wanted him to,” McCain said.