A year after Bowe Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban, his family and community have not given up hope

kkreller@idahostatesman.comJuly 1, 2010 

HAILEY - Bowe Bergdahl is everywhere in Hailey.

And nowhere.

He's in the coffee shop where he used to work. He's on the mouths of residents worried about his safety. He's in the yellow ribbons tied around trees and sign posts. He's in the banner near the rodeo grounds. And he's in the hearts of his very private family.

He's also somewhere in Afghanistan.

Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban on June 30, 2009, while serving with his Alaska-based Army unit. He is the only U.S. service member in captivity, a dubious distinction for the residents of this Idaho mountain town.

Bergdahl's physical absence cuts a swath through the town and its residents, they say. The ribbons, signs and stickers are reminders to be steadfast.

On Wednesday afternoon, the community marked the grim anniversary with a statement from the family and an effort to refresh the town's yellow ribbons.

"I know the people in the city do their best to take care of (the ribbons)," said Cory Ruch, 21, who worked with Bergdahl at Zaney's coffee shop. "If they were to fade into the background, some people might start forgetting, and no one wants that to happen."

Zaney's owner Sue Martin stacked spools of the yellow ribbon inside her coffee shop Wednesday. In the past year Martin's shop has become a de facto Bergdahl Central.

At noon Wednesday, Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling toted his own podium to the shop, placing it in front of a sign that read "Standing for Bowe."

As a scrum of television cameras and reporters assembled, Femling read a rare public statement from the Bergdahl clan in which they expressed gratitude for the "tremendous support" they've received.

"He has not been forgotten for even one of those past 365 days - not by our family, not by our neighbors in the Wood River Valley and Idaho, not by our elected leaders in Boise and Washington, and not by his colleagues," Femling read.

"We have no choice but to rise and meet the challenges that come to us," the family wrote. "We believe this is what Bowe has done, and we're following his lead. We're trying to find courage and be patient while doing everything we can to keep hope during this difficult situation."

There have been changes in Bergdahl's absence. His girlfriend moved in with his parents. He was promoted in mid-June from private first class to specialist -which he probably doesn't know.

The Bergdahls' silence is born of a need for privacy and a preference for a measured, printed word, according to Idaho Military Division spokesman Col. Tim Marsano, who has been handling media relations for the family.

Likewise, the U.S. military's response has been consistent since Bergdahl's capture. Finding Bergdahl is a "top priority," Rear Adm. Greg Smith, deputy chief of staff for communication at Fort Richardson, Alaska, said in a Tuesday release.

"We continue our efforts to determine his whereabouts and ensure his safe return," Smith wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Bowe and his family."

The circumstances behind Bergdahl's capture are in question and have been debated in the national media. Bergdahl's captors have released several videos that appear to show he is alive.

Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, stirred controversy in April when he suggested on a Boise radio program that the U.S. negotiate with the Taliban for his release.

But Martin, a regular spokeswoman for the family, said such controversies do not change the community's support. In fact, her coffee shop regulars and fellow residents see them as blips. Bergdahl and his family are still part of the daily conversations, she said.

"We are just concerned about Bowe on a personal - not a political - basis," she said.

On Wednesday, Suzanne Buchanan brought her husband and children to the ribbon event. They also tied ribbons a year ago, she said.

"We did it just to show support for his family," Buchanan said. "And my husband used to be in the military."

Femling said the Bergdahls are getting regular updates from the military and are satisfied with the search efforts.

Ruch describes his friend and former co-worker as an unusual and highly motivated man others look up to. He's cheery, funny and incredibly driven.

"When we had to get serious, he knew how to get serious," Ruch said. "He took life as it came."

Bergdahl is a physical specimen, "built," as Ruch put it, and his martial arts and ballet training show through. But he isn't imposing.

Bergdahl was very excited when he got in the Army, Ruch said, one of the goals he was steadfast in achieving. Much like the community's belief that one of their own will someday come home.

"I know he'll make it back," Ruch said. "There is no doubt in my mind."

Kathleen Kreller: 377-6418

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