From prayers to fury: The journey of Bowe Bergdahl

By Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This image made from video released Wednesday, April 7, 2010 by the the Site Intelligence Group from the Taliban shows U.S. soldier Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. In the video, Bergdahl, captured in Afghanistan in June 2009, says he wants to return to his family in Idaho and that the war in Afghanistan is not worth the number of lives that have been lost or wasted in prison.

Site Intelligence Group, Associated Press

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 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, angered to see him heralded as a hero. "That's exactly the opposite of what he is."

Now, as Bergdahl prepares to head home, everyday Americans are left asking: Is he a victim? A traitor? Are we meant to empathize or admonish?

Bergdahl grew up with parents and older sister Sky amid the breathtaking peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. The kids were homeschooled, and he received a GED from a local college. His father drove a UPS truck.

The blond, lanky kid grew up, by all accounts, an explorer near Hailey, Idaho, a town of 7,000 that offers a funky alternative to the nearby Sun Valley ski resort. He sparred with the Sun Valley Swords fencing club, danced with the Sun Valley Ballet School, loved his bicycle and sought adventures.

He bounced from job to job, on an Alaskan fishing boat, cleaning guns and stocking targets at the shooting club, crewing on a sailboat trip from South Carolina to California.

From the librarian to the sheriff, everyone 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.

Bergdahl enlisted at 22 and, with just seven months of military training, was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2009 with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

Their mission was to stop the Taliban. Beyond fighting, that meant patrolling villages, gathering intelligence, winning the confidence of locals, 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."

As months passed, Bergdahl began grousing to Buetow, his boss, about their mission. "'You don't have to believe in it, but I need your mind clear if something happens,'" Buetow, 28, of Seattle recalled telling him.

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," said Buetow.

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