The only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan was released early Saturday after nearly five years of imprisonment, and he traveled to receive medical care at Bagram Air Field hours after he was freed.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, was released after being held by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. His freedom was secured in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.
“He wasn’t forgotten about. The United States of America never leaves its men and women in uniform behind,” Obama said in a statement Saturday evening in the White House Rose Garden. “The top priority is making sure he gets the care and support he needs to be reunited with his family as soon as possible.”
“We cannot wait for the moment when you are reunited and your son Bowe is back in your arms,” Obama said to Bob and Jani Bergdahl, who flanked the president during the statement.
Both parents spoke briefly about their joy in hearing the news of their son, who Bob Bergdahl, said was having trouble speaking English in the hours after his release.
“We just can’t communicate the words this morning when we heard from the president, so we look forward to continuing the recovery of our son, which is going to be a considerable task for our family,” Bob Bergdahl, said. He also spoke in a foreign language to remind Bowe that he is his father.
Republican lawmakers welcomed the release of Bergdahl but also condemned Obama for what they called a violation of the National Defense Authorization Act that requires the president to notify Congress 30 days before transferring prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.
Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released a statement calling for a careful examination of the means that secured Bergdahl’s freedom.
“America has maintained a prohibition on negotiating with terrorists for good reason. Trading five senior Taliban leaders from detention in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl’s release may have consequences for the rest of our forces and all Americans,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
“In executing this transfer, the president also clearly violated laws which require him to notify Congress 30 days before any transfer of terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and to explain how the threat posed by such terrorists has been substantially mitigated,” they continued. “Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rodgers added in a statement, “I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come.”A White House official told NBC News’ Kristen Welker that the window of opportunity to free Bergdahl prompted the swift move. “The administration determined that given these unique and exigent circumstances, such a transfer should go forward notwithstanding the notice requirement of the NDAA,” the official said.
The Taliban indicated an interest several weeks ago in resuming indirect talks on Bergdahl and other detainees, Obama said on Saturday. Additionally, Obama called the Amir of Qatar earlier last week, when the two leaders presented each other with assurances about the proposed transfers.
Bergdahl is now under the care of the U.S. military. He was expected to receive medical care at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, as soon as Saturday before beginning his reintegration process in Landstuhl, Germany.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that he spoke to outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai Saturday and informed him of Bergdahl’s release.
“The cost of years of captivity to Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and his family is immeasurable. Today, we are heartened that Sergeant Bergdahl will soon b[e] reunited with his family and friends, from whom he has been apart for far too long,” Kerry said in the statement.
The soldier’s freedom came a week after Obama pledged to deplete U.S. troops in Afghanistan to a normal Embassy presence by 2016.