Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's health — even his survival — demanded the deal to get him back from his Taliban captors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday.
Bergdahl's release Saturday came after dozens of U.S. special operations troops faced off with 18 armed members of the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to a senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not officially cleared for release.
President Obama made the decision to trade five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl. His national security team was unanimous in its support of the trade, Hagel told reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan.
Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, thanked Americans for their support Sunday and added that their son faces a long recovery.
"Bowe's been gone so long, it's going to be very difficult to come back," Bob Bergdahl said, adding that he is proud of his son. "I hope your English is coming back," Bob Bergdahl said.
"Trust them. It's OK, and give yourself all of the time you need to recover and decompress," Jani Bergdahl said to her son. "There is no hurry. You have your life ahead of you." She continued: "You've made it ... You are free."
In his first extensive public comments about Saturday's operation, Hagel said intelligence the United States had gathered suggested that Bergdahl's "safety and health were both in jeopardy, and in particular his health was deteriorating."
The urgency to make the move was made in part because Bergdahl's health had been deteriorating after five years as a Taliban prisoner, Hagel said. The decision to secure his release now was made, Hagel said, "essentially to save his life."
Secretary of State John Kerry informed Afghan President Hamid Karzai after Bergdahl was safely transferred because of concerns that leaks could scuttle the deal, Hagel said. Very few people knew about the operation until after it was completed.
Meanwhile, Bergdahl arrived at the Army's hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. He has not yet spoken to his parents.
Taliban members handed Bergdahl over to special operations forces in eastern Afghanistan, and later in the day the detainees were flown from the Guantanamo detention center to Qatar.
The Pentagon did not give Congress the required 30-day notice for the release of detainees.
Hagel said the president has the authority to order such a release under Article 2 of the Constitution.
Hagel said the special operations forces conducting the operation took every precaution, using intelligence gathering, surveillance, well-positioned security assets and a lot of helicopters to ensure that things did not go wrong.
Several dozen special operations troops were involved in the operation, according to a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly about it. In addition, to helicopters, spy planes provided surveillance of the transfer.
There was potential for violence: there were 18 armed members of the Taliban at the transfer, the official said.
"No shots were fired. There was no violence," said Hagel. "It went as well as we not only expected and planned, but I think as well as it could have …The timing was right. The pieces came together."
Hagel said he was hopeful the prisoner exchange could lead to a breakthrough with the Taliban.
He said the focus of the operation was on the successful return of Bergdahl, but "maybe this could provide some possible new bridge for new negotiations."
The United States has long argued that the best way to a successful outcome in Afghanistan included reconciliation with the Taliban insurgents.
Asked if this type of swap might embolden other militants to take hostages, Hagel said that this operation was a prisoner exchange. And he said terrorist groups are already kidnapping young school girls, business people and other innocent people.
Hagel declined to say whether he believes Bergdahl was attempting to desert the Army or go absent without leave when he walked away from his unit and disappeared nearly five years ago.
"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health and getting him reunited with his family," Hagel said. "Other circumstances that may develop and questions — those will be dealt with later."
He added that his own time in Vietnam and the fact that he knew people like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war, gives him a personal connection to such an exchange.
"This is a very happy day for the Bergdahl family," Hagel said. "It's a very important day for our troops and our country."
Hagel said he planned to talk to the Bergdahls soon, and will speak with the soldier at the appropriate time, so as not to interfere with his health care needs.
"I am particularly happy for the family. What they have had to endure, how they've endured it — it's been remarkable. They have not been bitter. They have adjusted, they never lost hope and faith," Hagel said.
Contributing: David Jackson and Associated Press
Sgt. Bergdahl's release in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay has sparked debate on whether Obama "negotiated with terrorists." VPC