Their voices at times quivering from emotion, the parents of recovered American soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl spoke through tears on Sunday to send messages of support to the son they haven t seen in more than five years.
“I love you, Bowe … I’m so very proud of you,” said Bergdahl’s mother, Jani, addressing her soldier son, 28, via news conference in Boise, Idaho.
Appearing alongside her husband, Bob – who wore a full beard to show solidarity with his now-bearded son – Jani Bergdahl told Bowe that she looks forward to giving him a “great big bear hug” once he returns home.
She also said he should trust those who are helping him, and to take as much time as he needs.
‘Like a Cave Dweller Walking into the Sunlight’
Bowe Bergdahl, from Hailey, Idaho, was missing since June 30, 2009, when his unit in Afghanistan noted his absence from roll call. On Saturday, he was released into the custody of a U.S. Special Operations unit in eastern Afghanistan, in exchange for five detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A source with knowledge of the mission tells PEOPLE that the rescuers’ first sighting of Bergdahl was “a little bit like watching a cave dweller walk into the sunlight.”
Bergdahl walked under his own steam, but was limping or walking awkwardly, the source said.
“He seemed to have pain in his feet.” The pain could stem from injury or tenderness, said a source with knowledge of the case. Over the years, Bergdahl made at least three escape attempts. He was injured during his second escape, and was kept barefoot in order to discourage additional breakouts, the source said.
The Taliban captors likely did not tell Bergdahl he was in the process of being released, the source added.
When the young soldier spotted the Americans, he appeared “gaunt, dazed, and unsure what was happening,” said the source with knowledge of the mission.
Moments later, after being checked for booby traps and ushered on board a helicopter headed for the safety of Bagram Air Base, Bergdahl had no doubt that his long captivity was over.
After hearing an American soldier tell him “we’ve been looking for you a long time,” an emotional Bergdahl collapsed into tears of relief and gratitude.
Difficulty Speaking English Again
Bergdahl had trouble expressing his feelings – or anything else – in his native language, however.
“He has extreme difficulty speaking English,” according to the source with knowledge of the case. “He understands it, but he doesn t seem able to speak it.”
Now undergoing medical assessments and treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Bergdahl is beginning his slow reintegration to life in the West.
“He has lost a lot of weight,” said the source with knowledge of the case. “His system will be gradually brought back. He’ll be on liquids and noodles for quite some time. He’ll be lucky if he gets a milkshake.”
Saying that his son represents “amazing testimony of human endurance,” Bergdahl’s father, Bob, acknowledged that the entire Bergdahl family faces a lengthy healing process.
“In many ways, it’s just beginning,” the father said. “We recognize that we are still on a mission. We’re still on recovery mode ourselves.”
Among the sentiments Bob Bergdahl sent to his son: “I hope your English is coming back.”
Bowe Bergdahl is expected to complete his recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. No decision has yet been made on when he will reunite with his parents in person.