Bowe Bergdahl: 'Everybody's son'

Idaho POW's absence has changed his hometown forever

(TWIN FALLS) TIMES-NEWSAugust 5, 2013 

— A sign near a downtown Hailey gas station seems to capture it all.

Non-Ethanol Fuel Available.

Bring Bowe Home.

Here in the home of the only current American prisoner of war, locals go about their lives. But thoughts of the young man who once roamed the nearby hills are never far.

The signs and hundreds of yellow ribbons lining the town are an ever-present symbol that although 27-year-old Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl remains caged by the Taliban, he lives healthy and free in the minds of the people - Mike Broman among them.

Such intense focus since Bergdahl's June 2009 capture has forever shaped the many who knew him and changed the small town where Broman has lived since 1993.

"It has brought the real world into our tiny little community," said Broman, owner of the Wicked Spud Bar and Grill. "We've always been not naive, but sheltered. We have our own little community concerns and this and that. All of a sudden we have this major international issue, and we're the center of it."

In the beginning, many locals were skeptical of the media onslaught and kept quiet while supporting Bergdahl's parents. But as the clamor died down, they realized they must be active, organizing events and speaking to reporters to keep his name in the headlines.

Intermittent news that officials were making progress in negotiations with the Taliban has sparked excitement. Months of silence wash it away.

Hope surged again last month when the Bergdahls received a letter from the young machine-gunner, forwarded to them by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Next, the Taliban offered to free Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five prisoners from Guantanamo.

But no more news has surfaced in the month since.

"It's a horrible roller-coaster ride," said Col. Tim Marsano, public affairs officer for the Idaho National Guard, who is acting as media liaison for the family.

BOWE CENTRAL

In Hailey, all things come back to Zaney's River Street Coffee House. The store now feels more like a chapel dedicated to Bergdahl.

To Zaney's owner Sue Martin, he's "everybody's son."

"He's a homegrown, small-town Idaho man with a quest to know the world," said Martin. "He's just a good-hearted person, and I think it touches them. They want to know Bowe."

Bergdahl spent his youth fencing, riding motorcycles, dancing ballet, shooting guns and taking grand adventures - once to Alaska to work on a commercial fishing boat, said Sherry Horton, his longtime friend and dance instructor at Sun Valley Ballet School.

"His essence was so different," said Horton, who now owns DiVine, a downtown wine bar.

Bergdahl joined the Army hoping to make the world a better place, said Lee Ann Ferris, the Bergdahls' neighbor of 18 years.

Ferris said she watched Bergdahl grow up hunting squirrels in her backyard, and she was glad to see him ship off to see the world. But she also was nervous.

Four years after his capture, hope still energizes Ferris. But she can't shake her empathy for Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani.

"You kind of go with the ups and downs of the parents and how disappointed they get when it doesn't come through," she said. "You feel so heartsick for them, really."

FOREVER CHANGED

Martin has been profoundly changed by outreach from around the world focused on her coffee shop, she said.

A man gathered cans on the side of the highway to buy a POW-MIA flag and other items for her shop.

Phone calls have come in from far-flung nations.

Travelers have arrived from far and wide to sign the store's yellow board and guest book.

A woman took a ribbon from Hailey to California, had her church congregation sign it, and later brought it back.

It's all made Martin aware of "how much we all share all over the world," she said. "How much they care about Bowe, and everybody is hopeful for a peaceful resolution for everybody."

Horton said the situation has made her live life to the fullest. She'll often find herself thinking about how much Bergdahl would like to be with her during one of her adventures.

"You kind of live for two," she said.

In resort towns like Hailey, other people's kids are important to everyone, Ferris said.

"We're kind of a family up here," she said.

As such, the town's collective consciousness has evolved over the past four years, Broman said.

"I think he's on everybody's mind all the time," he said. "The only silver lining I can see throughout this whole thing is that it really has given this community something to rally around and come together over."

Hailey will always be different, though. It's as if "we've lost a bit of innocence" that won't ever come back, Horton said.

NOT FORGOTTEN

Put people outside of Idaho need to be constantly reminded that Bergdahl remains a POW, Horton said.

"It's in our minds here every day, the ribbons, the banners, the stickers. But the media is now helping us get it everywhere else again. They have become like a new character in our little saga," she said.

Some are disappointed in national media coverage.

"You don't hear about him on CNN, you don't hear about him on any of the big networks, and I don't know if that's for national security purposes or what," Broman said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo said he and Sen. James Risch are working with federal officials. But the two can't say much about classified information, Crapo said.

"I don't think there is any way to get around that," he said.

Crapo said he has spoken about Bergdahl with military and intelligence officials in the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan, including those close to negotiations at the State Department and in the Pentagon.

"We can say it remains a priority for us," Crapo said.

RIBBONS AND RETURNS

While locals wait for word from their congressmen, many keep their minds occupied and hands busy by keeping up the many ribbons around town, said Geegee Lowe, office manager at the Hailey Chamber of Commerce.

"When I go down the road, I may stop and put 10 new ones up or fix them up so they're nicer," she said. "With the wind and the sun, some look better than others."

Merchants use their storefronts to display messages of hope for Bergdahl, such as the banner that has hung for three years over the entrance of Windemere Real Estate. Receptionist Monica Hebert walks under that sign every day and thinks of Bob Bergdahl, who was the office's UPS delivery man.

"One day Bob said, 'Every day, when I turn the corner, that's what I see. It means a lot to me to see that ban-ner,' " Hebert said.

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