By Kimberlee Kruesi and Bob Moen Associated Press
HAILEY, Idaho — The news Saturday of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from captivity spread quickly in his hometown in southern Idaho, and residents immediately began making plans for a welcome-home celebration.
An annual event called “Bring Bowe Back” scheduled for June 28 was quickly renamed “Bowe is Back.”
“It is going to be Bowe’s official welcome-home party even if he’s not quite home yet,” organizer Stefanie O’Neill said Saturday.
Bergdahl, 28, had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States.
In Hailey, a town of 7,000 residents just down the road from upscale Sun Valley, residents have hung yellow ribbons from trees and utility poles and planted a tree in a local park each year since he was held. Signs reading “Bring Bowe Home” were placed in shop windows.
“We were in the process of buying our fifth tree, and we don’t need it now,” O’Neill said.
The yellow ribbons had just been replaced last week.
“When Bowe is home then our ribbons come down,” O’Neill said. “We are thrilled that he is safe. But we’ll keep everything up until he’s back with his mom and dad in his house.”
Bob and Jani Bergdahl live in a modest home off a dirt road about 5 miles outside of Hailey.
Mark Kashino, an acquaintance of the Bergdahl family, said he called friends around town when he first heard the news.
“I imagine there’s going to be some real great celebrating,” Kashino said. “My wife and I have just been thinking all morning about Bob and his wife and how incredibly excited they must be at this point.”
Bob Bergdahl learned some Pashto, the language spoken by the Taliban, and made a video, distributed via the Internet in May 2011, in a bid to appeal directly to the Taliban for his son’s freedom. He also grew a beard as a personal monument to his son’s plight.
“I just want to say that Jani and Bob Bergdahl are the two most dedicated people I have ever known in my life,” O’Neill said. “They never once gave up on their son. When the community wasn’t sure what was going to happen, when the world wasn’t sure what was going to happen, there was never a doubt in their minds that their son would come home safe, ever. That’s truly the highest form of love.”
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter issued a statement welcoming the news and expressing gratitude for prayers for Bergdahl’s release being answered.
“Today, Idaho gives thanks,” Otter said. “Soon we all will celebrate Bowe’s freedom and homecoming.”
Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Kenck also issued a statement Saturday.
“We are happy to join the many Idahoans today who are celebrating news that U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been released from captivity in Afghanistan and is now in American hands. This has been a terrible ordeal for Sgt. Bergdahl and his family here at home. We thank President Obama for his commitment to recovering Bowe Bergdahl and for following through on that commitment,” Kenck said.