Bowe Bergdahl stands, hands at his sides, his loose-fitting Pashtun smock and pants bright white against the rocky landscape. The hillsides are dotted with armed Afghans, rifles ready.
A Black Hawk appears in the clouds. After almost five years in captivity, the American soldier, head shaved, eyes blinking, is about to finally see freedom.
“We’ve been looking for you for a long time,” a member of a special forces team shouts over the roar of the copter. Bergdahl breaks down.
It was supposed to be a moment for celebration, America’s only military captive in the 13-year Afghan conflict free at last. And in his hometown in Idaho, where trees are bedecked with yellow ribbons and prayers never stopped, indeed it is.
But for the rest of the country, Bergdahl’s capture and release have thrust him into a furious debate.
From members of Congress to his own former platoon mates, a storm of critics are livid because Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his post and then released in a swap for five Taliban prisoners. Some also question whether soldiers died as part of efforts to save him.
“He’s a deserter, in every sense of the word,” said Evan Buetow, Bergdahl’s former Army team leader. “And when we got him back … and he was being heralded as a hero and he served honorably and he’s this example that people need to look to — that’s exactly the opposite of what he is.”
Now, as he prepares to head home, these both are true: As a prisoner, Bergdahl endured a lengthy captivity, a fate no one would wish on another. But as a soldier, Bergdahl’s decision to leave his unit endangered the comrades who fruitlessly hunted for him.
Everyday Americans now ask: Is he a victim? A traitor? Are we meant to empathize or admonish?
It’s a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.
Bergdahl grew up with his parents and older sister Sky amid the breathtaking peaks and valleys of the Sawtooth Mountains. Their home, a humble place with a weather-beaten roof, sits nestled among hills of alder and sage.
There are schools in Hailey, Idaho, 6 miles down the road, but Bergdahl and his sister were taught at home, and he received a GED from a local college. His father worked as a UPS driver.
Hailey, a town of 7,000 that sprang up more than a century ago during a mining boom, is part blue-collar community and part resort town, a funky alternative to the nearby Sun Valley ski resort that’s a winter playground for Hollywood celebrities.
The blond, lanky kid grew up, by all accounts, an explorer. At 17, he sparred at a renaissance fair with the Sun Valley Swords fencing club. He danced into his early 20s with the Sun Valley Ballet School.
Bergdahl loved his bicycle, eschewed driving, sought adventures.
He bounced from job to job before enlisting at 22, on an Alaskan fishing boat and construction sites, cleaning guns and stocking targets at the shooting club, crewing on a sailboat trip from South Carolina to California, slinging joe at the coffeehouse.
From the librarian to the sheriff, everyone in Hailey seemed to know and admire Bergdahl as he came of age. “He was good every which way you looked at it,” said the gun club manager, Dick Mandeville.
He started talking about joining the military while working the early shift at Zaney’s River Street Coffee House, manager Sue Martin recalled. His sister had married a U.S. Naval Academy graduate.
Bergdahl figured it could be a way to travel.
With just seven months of military training, Bergdahl flew to Afghanistan in February 2009 with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
Their mission was to “get the Taliban,” said Buetow, 28, of Seattle. That meant combat operations as well as patrolling villages, gathering intelligence, winning the confidence of locals and elders, training the Afghan National Police. Bergdahl preferred the humanitarian aspect of the job, passing out food and medical supplies.
“He enjoyed helping the locals way more than he enjoyed doing all the … actual combat side of a deployment,” said platoon medic Josh Cornelison, 25, of Sacramento, California. “He wasn’t so fond of that at all.”
He was different in other ways, too. In training back in the U.S., he didn’t have a cellphone, didn’t watch TV, didn’t go drinking with the guys. He sat in his bunk reading books, studying languages. In Afghanistan, when soldiers swapped stories of their personal lives, Bergdahl kept things to himself.
As months passed, Bergdahl began grousing to Buetow about the way they were carrying out their mission, but, as his boss, Buetow stopped him short.
“I was like: ‘You can disagree. But you can’t be complaining about this mission. And you don’t have to believe in it, but I need your mind clear if something happens,”’ Buetow recalled.
Days before he disappeared, Bergdahl asked Buetow how to get the maximum amount of cash from his paycheck. He also wanted to mail home his computer and books.
“There were things he said that I didn’t think too much of at the time, but when he walked away the lights started going off in all of our heads … and it became pretty clear that it was a premeditated event, that he had been thinking about this for a while,” said Buetow.
On June 27, 2009, Bergdahl sent his parents what would be his final email from the field.
“I am sorry for everything here,” he told his parents, who later shared emails with Rolling Stone magazine. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”
He said an Army vehicle had run over a girl, but “we don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks.”
His father responded quickly: “Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience.”
Three days later, at 5:30 a.m., a soldier went to wake Bergdahl for guard duty. Their platoon was living at an isolated post, a two-acre stretch of a riverbed, surrounded by wire, with camouflage mesh and poncho structures to keep out the blazing sun.
Bergdahl slept in a one-man pup tent next to the truck that served as his guard post. On this morning, his body armor and weapon were there. But Bergdahl was gone.
Shouts rang out. “Hey, is Bergdahl up there?” someone called. Over the radio: “Everyone listen up. Has anyone seen Bergdahl?”
There wasn’t any place to hide, no trees or boulders. It didn’t take long to realize that Bergdahl was gone, “outside the wire, alone,” said Cornelison. “And you know, that’s trouble.”
Soldiers stormed through bunkers, peeked in latrines, opened vehicles and scoured Afghan National Police posts. Search dogs were on the ground within hours.
At a nearby village school, Cornelison said two boys told them he had seen a soldier crawling through the weeds and showed them where, but they found nothing.
Hopes that Bergdahl was lost, sick or simply missing were dashed within a day when a radio operator intercepted Afghans chatting about their new bargaining chip.
“I think he is a big shot,” says one in a translated transcript posted on the whistleblower group WikiLeaks’ website. “(That’s) why they are looking for him.”
“Can you guys make a video of him and announce it all over Afghanistan that we have one of the Americans?” another man asks. The response: “We already have a video of him.”
In another interception, an Afghan said an American was looking for someone who could speak English, and wanted to talk to the Taliban. Analysts believed he was being held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban.
Within weeks, the public got its first glimpse of the missing soldier, choking up as he talked about his girlfriend and family in a 28-minute video posted by the Taliban. One of his captors held the soldier’s dog tag up to the camera, his name and ID number clearly visible.
Asked how he was doing, Bergdahl quaked.
“Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home.”
Back in Hailey, Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, had known of his capture. Now it was public. Yellow ribbons were tied. Candles lit. Martin hung a “Get Bowe Back” sign in her cafe window.
The family chained their front gate, attaching a small cardboard sign: “No visitors.”
His father stopped shaving and started studying Pashto and Arabic to immerse himself in Afghan culture, to feel a connection with his son.
In Idaho, the vigil had begun. In Afghanistan, the search continued, frantically for several months.
Bergdahl — already a hero of his family and friends — would soon become a national icon. The public knew little of the circumstances of his disappearance. On the record, the story was only that Bergdahl had strayed from base.
A Pentagon investigation concluded in 2010 that the evidence was “incontrovertible” that Bergdahl indeed walked away from his unit, but did not accuse him of desertion, a former Pentagon official who read the report told The Associated Press.
In interviews as part of the probe, members of his unit portrayed him as a naive, “delusional” person who thought he could help the Afghan people by leaving his post, said the official.
Platoon members say they were told not to publicly discuss the situation, and so only quietly did they share their unwavering belief that Bergdahl intentionally deserted. On the ground, concern turned to anger as their mission became finding Bergdahl.
“Yes, we resented it. We resented him. And we were upset with the fact that we’re looking for this guy who we knew walked away,” said Buetow. “But you know, you take your shower in five minutes and you jump in that truck and go back out there. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
The Taliban repeatedly offered to swap Bergdahl for Afghan prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2011, U.S. officials talked directly with Taliban negotiators about a deal. And in early 2012, the Taliban took steps to open a liaison office in Qatar, the exchange key on the agenda.
But the proposed deal sat in limbo for years, facing opposition in Congress. The Taliban walked away from talks in March 2012, saying the U.S. had reneged on several promises. The Obama administration tried several gambits to restart talks, including proposing looser terms for the detention or monitoring of at least one of the prisoners upon their release.
And there was tension between Afghan authorities, who demanded the prisoners be repatriated to Afghanistan, and the prisoners, who wanted to go to Qatar with their families.
Talks renewed this spring after a video surfaced in December showing Bergdahl in what officials described as poor health. By March, as a deal appeared close, critics began calling for him to be charged with desertion, which could bring five years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
As the exchange day approached, Taliban and U.S. officials negotiated minute details of the swap. Then the five Afghans were quietly transferred to Qatar, and Bergdahl’s moment had arrived. The exchange was recorded and posted online by the Taliban.
The morning of May 31, President Barack Obama called the Bergdahls.
“I … told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son Bowe is coming home,” said Obama at an emotional news conference later that day.
Bergdahl, now 28, has yet to appear in public or, even, speak to his parents, officials say. He remains at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, working his way through the early stages of reintegration — a process complicated by the circumstances of his disappearance.
A military psychologist said negative publicity can make it even harder to prepare a former hostage for the return home. And in Bergdahl’s case, that publicity has been bitter.
A Facebook page went up the day after his release called “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a hero,” and then came several more, calling him a traitor. A petition was launched demanding a court martial.
A vitriolic Twitter storm hammered Obama. And then one after another, former platoon mates made the media rounds, describing how Bergdahl walked away and their anger at the entire ordeal.
In Hailey, joy quickly turned to bafflement as townspeople faced an onslaught of hate mail and angry phone calls from people who said Bergdahl doesn’t deserve to be celebrated. A planned welcome-home party was cancelled. His parents are surprised and “very hurt” by the outcry, a former pastor who is in touch with them said.
“It’s like a modern day lynching,” said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahls and watched Bowe grow up.
At a news conference in Idaho on Sunday — the last time Bergdahl’s parents spoke publicly — Bob Bergdahl said the family would have to ease into rebuilding a relationship.
“Bowe has been gone so long it’s going to be very difficult to come back,” he said, likening the situation to a deep sea diver who needs to surface slowly to decompress safely.
“If he comes up too fast it could kill him.”
Five days before Bergdahl disappeared, his battalion suffered its first casualty: Lt. Brian Bradshaw.
Bradshaw’s mother, Mary, told The Associated Press that after Bergdahl was captured, Bob Bergdahl called many times, convinced their sons had been friends. Bob Bergdahl told Rolling Stone magazine that Bradshaw’s death had darkened his son’s mood.
“Maybe it was a catalyst for Bergdahl to go,” Mary Bradshaw said. “But I have nothing to back that up.”
Bergdahl’s disappearance delayed Bradshaw’s memorial for weeks, as troops searched for the missing soldier. And now Bergdahl’s return is scratching a wound.
“I am happy for his parents that he is home. I am glad that he is safe. But no,” Mary Bradshaw said, “I don’t view him as a hero.”
An investigation that is expected to examine the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance has not yet begun. But some of his former platoon mates and parents of some soldiers who died in that part of Afghanistan after Bergdahl’s disappearance are insisting that he answer for his actions.
Gerald Sutton served with Bergdahl and considered him a friend. Now, he wants a court martial.
“Personally, I’d like to be able to talk to the guy and ask him why he did this,” he said, “because that’s the ultimate question.”