Idaho hometown of freed soldier makes welcome-home plans

Published: Saturday, May 31 2014 8:10 p.m. MDT

New signs hang at Zaney's coffee house in Hailey, Idaho on Saturday, May 31, 2014 after the announcement that U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been released from captivity. 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.

Drew Nash, Associated Press

HAILEY, Idaho — U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl worked at Zaney's River Street Cafe off and on in his hometown in southern Idaho for two years. When owner Sue Martin learned of his capture in Afghanistan in 2009, she turned on a light in his honor.

That light, which sits on a shelf, has remained on ever since as her coffee shop became a support center for the soldier's release.

"It's a ray of hope," she explained Saturday.

Even though Bergdahl has finally been released, Martin intends to keep the light burning — at least until he comes back to the modest home off a dirt road about 5 miles outside of Hailey.

"I'll let Bowe turn it off" himself, she said.

For years, a sign that hung in the cafe's window read "Get Bowe Back." On Saturday, it was accompanied with two more signs that said, "Welcome home, Bowe!" and "Our prayers have been answered!"

The news Saturday of Bergdahl's release from captivity spread quickly in Hailey, 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 along the one major road that travels through the heart of the community. Signs were taped up Saturday that said, "Bowe is free at last!"

Hailey resident Audrey Kirk said she found out about Bergdahl's release after her sister texted her the news.

"I remember when he was captured. It was awful," said Kirk, who attends the same church as Bergdahl's parents. "When I got the text, I just started screaming and went to turn on the TV. It's surreal that he's coming home."

Rebecca DeShields, also a Hailey resident, said that when she heard about the news she grabbed her bike and attached a bright yellow balloon to the front. "This is a story of redemption, this is a story of one of our own coming home," she said.

"Everyone is ecstatic. We're all hugging even if we don't know each other," said O'Neill. "We walk down the street and people are like, 'Have you heard the news?'"

Jeff Gunter, Hailey's police chief, described the day as being "extremely emotional." Gunter has been close friends with Bergdahl's family for the past 25 years.

"Nobody can know what they (the parents) went through," Gunter said. "But now that they're able to reach out and touch him, to hold him, that's amazing."

Bob and Jani Bergdahl joined President Obama during an appearance in the Rose Garden Saturday evening as he announced Bowe Bergdahl's release. The couple planned to speak to the media in Boise on Sunday afternoon.

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.

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."

In addition to hanging yellow ribbons from trees and utility poles since Bergdahl was captured, Hailey residents planted four trees in a local park, one for every year the solder spent in captivity.

"We were in the process this week of obtaining the fifth tree and getting that planted and we don't need that tree now," O'Neill said Saturday.

"When Bowe is home then our ribbons come down," she added. "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."

O'Neill said his parents always believed this day would come. "They never gave up hope," she said, adding that no one else in the town did, either.

Martin pulled out a bright, yellow V-neck shirt that matches the town's ribbons and balloons. She's been saving the shirt for the day she always knew would come.

"I've saved it for years. I bought it specifically for when Bowe was released and ready to come home," she said, adding that she will be waiting for him to come back home with open arms.

"I'm going to congratulate him for his perseverence myself," she said.

Email: syi@deseretnews.com

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