POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 14, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 1:34 a.m. HST, May 14, 2012
HAILEY, Idaho >> Off a gravel road in a horse pasture in the crystalline air of the Northern Rockies, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl grew up skiing, fencing and dancing the role of the Nutcracker in the nearby Sun Valley Ballet School — on the surface, at least, an unlikely recruit for the U.S. Army.
But his family and friends say that in retrospect his enlistment made a certain sense. Bergdahl had learned to shoot in the sagebrush hills surrounding his family home and was a superb marksman. He admired the military for its discipline and for what he saw as its role in protecting the American way of life.
After years of odd jobs and adventures, he told friends he was ready for the focus that a career in the Army would bring. Not least, his family said, he was lured by the promises of military recruiters that he would be helping people in other parts of the world. He had come to see the military as a kind of Peace Corps with guns.
“I don’t think he understood really what he was going to do,” Sky Bergdahl, Bergdahl’s older sister, said.
The story of Bowe Bergdahl, 26, America’s only known current prisoner of war, is one of the strangest and now most consequential mysteries in the 10-year involvement of the U.S. in Afghanistan. He was captured under still unclear circumstances in June 2009 by insurgents in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, only two months after he arrived on the battlefield, and is now believed to be held, alive and relatively well, by the militant Haqqani network across the border in the tribal area of Pakistan’s northwest frontier.
Last week his anguished family broke a yearlong silence and announced that their son had become the centerpiece in secret but stalled negotiations between the Obama administration and the Taliban over a proposed prisoner exchange. The deal, which would trade five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay for Bergdahl, is considered a crucial first step toward striking a broader political settlement with the Taliban to bring the decade-long war to an end.
Bergdahl’s father, Robert Bergdahl, who said he went public to try to push the Obama administration to revive the talks, has in the meantime reached out to the insurgents. He is now in regular email contact with a man he believes is a member of the Taliban with accurate knowledge of his son.
“You don’t leave something like this to government officials,” Robert Bergdahl said in one of three interviews with The New York Times in recent months, two of them last week in Idaho. “Why wouldn’t a father do this? This is my job.” He said he now believed the Taliban would not harm his son.
Robert Bergdahl, a driver for UPS, said he still did not know how his son was captured. He discounted Taliban radio chatter intercepted by the military and recounted in a classified military report made public by WikiLeaks that suggests insurgents grabbed Bowe Bergdahl while he was in a latrine.
He would not speculate on whether his son had walked off his remote outpost during a counterinsurgency mission, as the military initially said, or had lagged behind on a patrol, as Bergdahl recounted in a Taliban video released a month after his capture.
One thing is certain, Robert Bergdahl said: “This is not your stereotypical American military family whose son went to war.”
Robert and Jani Bergdahl moved from California to Idaho in 1980, lured by the promise of construction jobs in the wealthy resorts of Ketchum and Sun Valley. Robert Bergdahl, an anthropology major who had dropped out of the University of California at Santa Barbara, poured cement but also waxed skis and worked for the Ketchum Fire Department.
By 1986, the year Bowe was born, he was driving for UPS and had bought 40 acres for $50,000 on a remote road outside Hailey, a town of some 6,000 people, many of them self-described “worker bees” for the resorts to the north.
He built a simple cabin that eventually housed about 5,000 books, but for years had no phone. “Remember Jed Clampett’s house before they moved?” Robert Bergdahl said, recalling the shack belonging to television’s “Beverly Hillbillies” before they struck oil.
Still, the surroundings were breathtaking and, by the accounts of family and friends, Bowe Bergdahl’s childhood was idyllic. Jani Bergdahl home-schooled Bowe and his sister, made sure they went to church every Sunday and let them loose to explore.
“It was good growing up with Bowe,” said James Cameron, a childhood friend who was also home-schooled and is now an electrician on the Sun Valley ski lifts. “We’d ski during the winter and shoot guns, and then during the summer we’d hike and shoot guns.”
By the time Bergdahl was in his early 20s he had his high school equivalency diploma and was moving from job to job to save up for exotic wanderings. Friends describe him as quiet, thoughtful, well-read and athletic, a free spirit who thought nothing of riding his bicycle back and forth the dozen miles between Hailey and Ketchum.
He did construction and yard work, was a house sitter and worked at a local shooting club. Through connections there he became a crew member on a large sailboat, which led to other crew jobs, including one through the Panama Canal. He traveled in Europe and rode his bicycle to California.
He also worked on and off as a barista at Zaney’s, a coffee house and local gathering spot in Hailey. Around the same time he switched from fencing and martial arts to classes at the Sun Valley Ballet School, where he is remembered as a strong dancer who easily lifted the school’s ballerinas. Bergdahl was pulled in by ballet’s discipline and grace, said Sherry Horton, artistic director of the school, but it was a move that prompted teasing from the Zaney’s staff.
Bergdahl had a response. “He asked them, ‘Who is the one man in this room who has all the beautiful girls’ phone numbers?”’ said Sue Martin, the owner of Zaney’s, now a shrine of yellow ribbons and posters proclaiming “Bring Bowe Home.”
By 2008, Bergdahl had enlisted in the Army without telling his parents, who were nervous but supported him when they heard. To Horton, who shared a house with him at the time, the decision was no surprise. “He wasn’t going to go to college,” she said. “He liked the odd jobs, but I think he was ready for a career, and that is the career he chose.”
Bergdahl was assigned to the First Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Fourth Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He deployed as a machine gunner in early May 2009 to a small combat outpost in Paktika province, at a time when American forces were extremely sparse in the area.
At first his emails home were effusive. “He was happy as a clam,” Robert Bergdahl said. He wrote of “how beautiful it was, how wonderful the people were.”
But the tone of his son’s emails soon darkened, Bergdahl said, although he declined to say specifically what set off the change.
Bergdahl would say only that he himself had become disillusioned by the military’s doctrine of counterinsurgency, aimed at winning over the Afghan population by building roads, schools and good governance while protecting them from insurgents. As part of the strategy American troops often travel on roads planted with homemade bombs, or improved explosive devices, to meet with villagers during the day to collect information about their needs — and to ask the whereabouts of insurgents so they can target them in night raids.
“The doctrine is fallacious,” Bergdahl said. “It doesn’t achieve what they say it’s going to achieve. It’s a biometric data-gathering device — send the rabbits out there to get IED-ed so you can figure out who to kill at night. How ethical.” His son, Bergdahl contended, was frustrated by what he saw.
Bowe Bergdahl was reported missing when he failed to show up for the outpost’s morning roll call on June 30, 2009. The military report made public by WikiLeaks makes clear the panic that occurred within Bergdahl’s command and describes the tracking dogs, patrols and Predator drones that were marshaled for a widespread search.
In the nearly three years since, Bergdahl has appeared in five videos released by the Taliban, all dismissed as propaganda by the American military, in which he pleads for an end to the U.S. involvement in the war and his release, as well as the release of Afghan prisoners held by the U.S.
“Every day I want to go home, the pain in my heart to see my family again doesn’t get any smaller,” he implored in the most recent one, released a year ago, which his mother watched again last week in Idaho with tears in her eyes.
“That’s the hardest video to take,” she said quietly.
The last time the Bergdahls saw their son in person was Christmas 2008, before he deployed, when Robert Bergdahl took him aside and told him, he said, “Men don’t come back from this, you know.”
But since then Robert Bergdahl has been awed by the resilience of his son and now believes, he said, that the ordeal will end well.
“That’s how much confidence we have in Bowe,” he said. “He’s like a cat who always lands on his feet.”