Post POW Reintegration Process Can Be Complicated, Lengthy, Officials Say
By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 5, 2014 When service members or DOD civilians are returned after being captured, separated from their unit or otherwise isolated, they enter a three-step reintegration program designed to assist them as they transition back to normal life, defense officials from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency said today during a briefing for reporters.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, held the briefing as Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, freed from nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan May 31, continues his recovery at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.
A variety of factors can complicate and lengthen the process of reintegration, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape psychologist with JPRA said. Persons held by small or disorganized groups will have experienced much harsher conditions than those held by foreign governments, he said. Media coverage can also complicate reintegration by appearing to favor one returnee over others or reporting only a portion of a story.
“Even in benign cases -- very benign cases -- where the general opinion is that [the returnee] is wonderful and this is a good news story for everybody, even in those cases there’s an impact,” the psychologist said.
The Defense Department divides the reintegration program into three phases, each designed to help the returnee regain control over some aspect of their lives.
The phases vary in length, depending on the needs of the returnee, and not all returnees will go through every phase, a DOD personnel recovery expert with JPRA said. Each phase ends with the recovered individual either being returned to duty or recommended for the next phase in the process.
A typical reintegration team consists of a team chief, SERE and intelligence debriefers, a SERE psychologist, medical officer, legal representative, chaplain, public affairs officer, personnel representative, service support representatives and a service casualty assistance representative, the recovery official said.
Recovery or release occurs in Phase One. It also “encompasses the process of transporting a recovered individual to a safe area to conduct an initial medical assessment and time-sensitive debriefings,” the official added.
Phase Two begins with the transition from Phase One to a theater treatment and processing facility and continues SERE and intelligence debriefings begun in Phase One. This phase usually takes place in a regional hospital outside the United States. It also marks the start of a psychological adjustment period, or decompression.
After a bad day at work, a person may take a few minutes to adjust before they are ready to respond to the needs of their family, the psychologist said. During reintegration, that period of decompression is when returnees learn to adjust to their release, he said.
"Someone who's been held in isolation has days’, months’ and years’ worth of 'bad days at work' and had to develop coping strategies that would allow them to survive in a very harsh, hostile environment," the psychologist said. These strategies may actually be harmful to the returnee as they attempt to reintegrate into society, he added.
Part of the healing process during Phase Two is for the returnee to tell his or her story, the defense officials said. Debriefers with specific areas of expertise, for example, training or tactics, will use that information to develop a set of “lessons learned,” with the aim of helping future personnel survive similar situations.
After years of having no say in even the simplest things, being confronted with choices can be overwhelming, the SERE psychologist said, so this period is also when returnees relearn how to handle having control over their lives. This starts with being told what each day’s schedule will be and progresses to being able to predict how to act in given situations, he said.
A Pentagon spokesman said Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is currently in Phase Two of the reintegration process.
Phase Three begins with the transition of a recovered individual to a Phase Three team of the appropriate service, the recovery official said. This phase usually takes place at a military medical facility in the United States. One of the goals of Phase Three is family reunification, the psychologist said.
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @rouloafps)