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Obama's Bergdahl Fiasco

By Toby Harnden - June 9, 2014

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The people of Bergdahl’s home town of Hailey, which has been festooned with yellow ribbons since the summer of 2009, have been going through something akin to shellshock as their celebratory mood has been blown away by a barrage of outrage.

“It reminds me of the old days in the West when they’d gather them up and try them and hang them in 24 hours,” said Sue Martin, owner of Zaney’s coffee shop, where Bergdahl had worked as a barista.

She was bewildered by the vilification of Bob, beloved in the town of 8,000 as “kind of a hippie soul” and a parcel delivery driver for 28 years before he retired recently to work in a local bike shop for spare parts in lieu of pay.

“Bob started the beard when Bowe was first captured, as a symbol of solidarity, and since then it has evolved and he’s been trimming it in the fashion of a Taliban elder so he could be respected as the elder of his family,” she said.

At the City Hall, the phones rang off the hook as hundreds of people protested about a welcome home rally, with Carole King due to sing, at the end of the month. The local Chamber of Commerce was inundated with emails and angry calls from people cancelling holidays in Hailey out of disgust.

By Wednesday, the police chief, who had earlier said he would be celebrating Bergdahl’s release with “a big cold one” cancelled the rally due to security fears that thousands of protestors would descend on the town.

It was a surprise to many in Hailey when Bergdahl joined the army but there are clues to his mysterious story in his unusual upbringing.

Bob, 54, had been a cycling champion and would have competed at the 1980 Moscow Olympics had America not boycotted them in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The experience prompted disillusionment with the US government and he later moved to Hailey in Idaho's Sun Valley. He and Jani, 56, raised Bowe and his elder sister Sky without television but with thousands of books, many of them stacked on the floor. The pair were home-schooled.

As a child, Bowe would shoot with his father and hunt elk using a bow and arrow. He revelled in paragliding, dirt biking, karate and fencing, also taking up ballet and practicing two or three times a day.

He harboured ambitions of joining the French foreign legion or sailing around the world but was, in the words of Sue Martin, “a sensitive, compassionate soul” who had studied Buddhism.

Rather than accepting a lift into the nearby town of Ketchum, Bergdahl would walk the 18 miles from his parents’ home, a ramshackle bungalow with a corrugated roof built by his father beside a dirt road in Hidden Valley canyon.

Hailey is a liberal oasis in a Republican state, attracting the rich and famous to skiing in Ketchum and hiking in the Sawtooth mountains. Bruce Willis owns the Hailey theatre and other Hollywood stars with property nearby include Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields and Robin Williams.

Eccentricity is almost the norm. Even before Bowe’s capture, Bob would talk incessantly about philosophy, history and politics. “Sometimes it’s hard to talk to him because he does get into all this intellectual stuff — he almost reads and thinks too much,” said Lee Ann Ferris, a long-time neighbour.

Another friend said Bob had once flirted with joining the Aryan Nation, a white supremacist group, and moving to the woods of northern Idaho.

“I love him but you have to understand, Bob is a kook. Half the stuff he talks about never happens — he changes his mind and six months later it’s something else.”

In the past five years, Bob, a devout Presbyterian, has studied Pashto and Urdu, the Koran and Middle Eastern history for several hours a day. Tortured by Taliban videos of his son, he considered travelling to Afghanistan on his own rescue mission.

According to a classified US army report, Bergdahl went missing from a training base in California soon after joining up “to see how far he could go or to see a sunrise or sunset”.

Within a year he had been posted to Afghanistan. He served as a machine-gunner for just a month and while initially gung-ho, saying the US needed to “kick more doors down”, he sought out Afghan police officers, sipping tea with them and learning Pashto phrases.

Matt Vierkant, a former sergeant in the same platoon, said Bergdahl was “an introvert, a quiet guy who didn’t try to make any friends but didn’t have any enemies”. One day the pair sat looking out over the rugged landscape and Bergdahl said he “could see himself getting lost in the mountains”.

Two weeks later he disappeared. His father responded to Bowe’s final email denouncing an “army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies” — and stating that “the horror that is america [sic] is disgusting” — with a message bearing the subject line: “OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!”

Bergdahl’s comrades knew he had deserted. He had left his rifle and flak jacket behind and taken only a knife, compass, water and a camera.

The US army has concluded there is no evidence he actively sought out the Taliban. An Afghan boy said he saw a soldier crawling through the grass. He may have walked several miles before encountering Taliban fighters. Two Afghan police officers disappeared at the same time, suggesting they might have helped Bergdahl leave and then betrayed him.

But there have been persistent reports that he converted to Islam in captivity and a Pentagon-funded investigation included claims that he played football with his captors, took part in AK-47 target practice and giggled frequently, saying “Salaam”, the Arabic word for peace.

Bob has said the son of Bowe’s captor had been killed by a US drone strike — almost identical to a dramatic incident in Homeland that helped convince the fictional Brody to turn against America.

In 2011 a Taliban commander told The Sunday Times that Bergdahl’s captors had let him hunt birds and rabbits in the mountains with an old British rifle. He is believed to have tried to escape at least twice, getting away for three days before he was discovered lying in leaves in a trench he had dug with his own hands.

Last week the Pentagon said he had been kept in a cage as a punishment, and physically abused. He appears to have been moved frequently, including to Pakistan.

Rather than being flown back to the US to be reunited with his family, Bergdahl has been kept at Landstuhl in Germany for the last week, undergoing intensive “debriefing” from intelligence officers as well as receiving medical and psychiatric care. One early goal, the US army said, was for him to “regain control of his emotions”. He has not been allowed to speak to his parents, even by telephone.

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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