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Bob Bergdahl: a war captive's father and his war at home

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Critics question why Bob Bergdahl seemed sympathetic with his son's captors
Bearded, extremely private, Bergdahl was given space by his fellow residents in small-town Hailey, Idaho

In 2011, during his long five-year vigil, waiting helplessly at home while his son was held by Taliban extremists half a world away, Bob Bergdahl made a personal video for the Pakistani government that he hoped would be delivered to his boy, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“These are my thoughts. I can remain silent no longer,” the father began. He stood in a black shirt, his bushy blond beard worn long, the kind sported by most militant men in the war-racked region. The snow-streaked hill behind him in central Idaho resembled the craggy mountains of Afghanistan.

In the three-minute video, he mentioned several high-ranking Pakistani generals by name, thanking them for their sacrifices. Then he went on to thank the Taliban forces that were holding his son. “Strangely to some,” he said, “we must also thank those who have cared for our son for almost two years. We know our son is a prisoner, but at the same time a guest in your home.”

He then addressed his son, sending his love and assuring him: “We’ve been quiet in public. But we haven’t been quiet behind the scene.”

That video, along with other social media postings the 54-year-old Bergdahl made after his son was captured near the Afghan-Pakistani border in 2009, have come under greater scrutiny in the wake of the Obama administration's controversial prisoner swap last week, in which the U.S. secured the 28-year-old sergeant's release by freeing five Taliban leaders held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

On Wednesday, the Taliban released a 17-minute video of Bergdahl’s release, showing a U.S. helicopter swooping in to collect a weak-looking soldier dressed in a white tunic and head scarf as armed Taliban gunmen looked on.

Back home, critics are demanding that the U.S. Army prosecute the younger Bergdahl for deserting his post before his capture, as has been claimed by other soldiers in his unit. In emails sent to friends before falling into Taliban hands, Sgt. Bergdahl had expressed dissatisfaction with America’s role in Afghanistan.

But the father is now under increased public scrutiny as well. Were his actions those of a worried parent who would do anything to gain the release of his child as the U.S. government’s efforts lagged? Was it, as some have suggested, a secondhand case of Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages express empathy for their captors? Or was it something more -- an aggrieved American family that had come to doubt its own country?

Bob Bergdahl, many say, was waging his own undeclared war at home.

Over the years, residents of this small resort town in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains watched as he slowly changed over the long months of his son’s ordeal. Always private, the conservative Presbyterian everyone knew as the local UPS deliveryman further retreated into his shell. He’d moved to Idaho with his wife, Jani, after dropping out of UC Santa Barbara. Both Bowe and his sister, Sky, were born there.

The elder Bergdahl learned Pashto, the language of his son’s captors, studied Arabic and immersed himself in the stories of other Americans held abroad. He began growing his hair and beard in solidarity with his son – its length and unruliness a a reminder to residents in Wood River Valley of just how long his son had been in captivity.

Few mentioned the beard, knowing its significance. They respected the family’s privacy. At the Bergdahls' 40-acre spread five miles outside town, accessible by dirt road, a “no trespassing” sign went up, a warning to the press and other onlookers to leave the family in peace.

“Bob delivered packages to our office and most everyone’s offices,” said Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle, a local lawyer who has known Bergdahl for 30 years. “You’d see him doing his job, but you never knew what to say. It’s one of those touchy subjects, like when someone dies. What do you say to the family? It’s not an easy conversation to have.

“The change in Bob's visage told the story. And it was a drastic change.”

As the father had assured the son in the 2011 video, he was not quiet behind the scenes. As the years passed, Bergdahl became frustrated over the stymied negotiations for his son’s release. He accused the Obama administration of abandoning the matter. He developed sources in Afghanistan that were in contact with his son’s captors and traveled to Washington to argue his cause.

He began posting on Twitter and other social media. Slowly, he began to give lengthy interviews in which he criticized the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The only word from his son had come from the occasional proof-of-life video released by the captors and a single letter from Bowe the family received in 2013.

“There is a dynamic here that has to change,” Bob Bergdahl said in an interview the year before that with the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper in which he criticized the stalled negotiations. He said swapping Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo for his son would be a “win-win” for the U.S. – retrieving a missing soldier while fostering goodwill with the Afghan people.

In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he discussed the possibility of going to Afghanistan to secure his son’s release. “I’ll talk to them,” he said of the captors. “I’ll bring him home myself.”

Meanwhile, he took to social media to further his cause, posting nearly 5,000 messages on Twitter about his son’s case and that of other captives held in various places around the world. Sometimes, he spoke out to Bowe as he did this year, posting “2014 NEVER GIVE UP! YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN! YOU WILL COME HOME! mom & dad.”

Bergdahl's last message came days before his son’s release, a tweet apparently directed toward a Taliban spokesman that was later deleted from his account. “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners. God will repay for the death of every Afghan child,” he wrote, ending in the common Muslim prayer conclusion, “Ameen.”

And then, last week, Bowe Bergdahl climbed atop a U.S. Army helicopter, heading toward freedom.

In an emotional news conference Sunday, his parents reached out to their son, to whom they had apparently not yet spoken. “Bowe, I love you. I am your father,” Bergdahl said, expressing concern that his son may have forgotten some of his English, and speaking in both English and Pashto. “I’ve written to you over and over.”

He described how the landscape and people of both Idaho and Afghanistan were similar – hardworking families in a mountainous land. “I’m proud of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people, and what you were willing to do to go to that length,” he said.

Fighting back tears, he added, “And I think you have succeeded.”

He didn’t elaborate.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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