By John M. Glionna Los Angeles Times
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.
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, 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.
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.
But the father is now under increased public scrutiny as well. 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 the University of California, Santa Barbara. 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 reminders to Wood River Valley residents of how long his son had been in captivity.
Few mentioned the beard, knowing its significance.
“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 his son in the 2011 video, he was not quiet behind the scenes. As the years passed, Bergdahl accused the Obama administration of abandoning the matter of his son’s release. 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.
“There is a dynamic here that has to change,” Bob Bergdahl said in a 2012 interview with the Idaho Mountain Express newspaper in which he criticized the stalled negotiations. He said swapping 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.
Meanwhile, he took to social media, 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.”