Growing up in the mountain town of Hailey, Idaho, Bergdahl was as likely to be found inside, poring over a book at a local library, as he was to be spotted outside, riding his bicycle through the hills that border the small town.
Home-schooled, Bergdahl performed in a ballet. He joined a fencing club, dabbled in foreign languages, including working his way through tomes written in Russian, and he even crewed on a sailboat trip from South Carolina to California.
It may have been that curiosity, combined with his tendency to gravitate toward disciplines like martial arts, that led him to join the military in June 2008, recalled his former ballet teacher, Sherry Horton.
“I think Bowe would have liked the rigor — that’s what he liked about ballet,” she said. “And it was something that he really believed in, serving the country, and making sure that he was there for the side of good.”
Now, as he recovers from five years as a Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan and amid questions about whether he was a deserter, some who know him say his personality is too multi-faceted to be summed up so neatly in black and white.
Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, moved to Hailey about three decades ago in search of peace and quiet, neighbors said. His older sister, Sky, was also home-schooled. He received a high-school GED diploma. Residents remember Bergdahl’s crop of blond hair and his bicycle.
Bergdahl got a job at a coffee shop, showing up looking for a job on his bicycle, said Sue Martin in a 2009 interview. When she was asked why Bergdahl joined the Sun Valley Ballet School, Martin said it was for the beautiful young women.
The smaller children at the school adored him as he would get on the floor and play with them during breaks, Horton said.
“He had the best manners. Any time someone needed something Bowe would do it,” said Horton, who is now the owner of diVine, a wine bar in Hailey.
As much as he liked being with people, he liked to “meditate, and sit in nature, and just listen to the sounds. I’m hoping he took that skill with him and it helped him with the time over there” in Afghanistan, she said.
In 2007, Bergdahl got a job at a local gun club, which included helping shooters on the trap fields, stocking targets and cleaning racks full of rifles. “He was good every which way you looked at it,” manager Dick Mandeville said in 2009.
Like Bergdahl, the town of Hailey isn’t easily characterized. The community prizes privacy, and that trait combined with the posh Sun Valley ski resort next door, has prompted dozens of celebrities to build second homes there.
But the influx of affluence hasn’t changed the come-as-you-are attitude and fierce loyalty of most residents.
Bergdahl was captured in 2009 by insurgents and the Pentagon concluded in 2010 that he walked away from his unit. After the capture, the community largely refused to talk to the press until Bergdahl’s parents gave Martin the go-ahead.
Martin became the unofficial town spokesperson for all things related to Bergdahl. She would coordinate yearly rallies and near-constant efforts to remind the nation that one of its own was still a prisoner.
This year’s rally, scheduled for June 28, was quickly switched to a celebration after news broke that Bergdahl had been freed.
But as the debate rages over the Obama administration’s decision to free five Taliban leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in exchange for Bergdahl, the town has been inundated with emails and phone calls criticizing the party plans.
Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said in a statement the city believes in due process, urging outsiders not to pre-judge Bergdahl. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Tuesday left open the possibility of desertion charges against him.
Both of Bergdahl’s parents praised what they described as their son’s toughness and his soft-heartedness.
“I imagine you are more patient and compassionate than ever,” Jani Bergdahl said Sunday. “I love you, Bowe.”
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