Hailey residents cheer the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

President Obama says Bergdahl 'wasn't forgotten by his country'

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 1, 2014 


    Gov. Butch Otter: "Miss Lori and I couldn't be happier. Bowe has been in all our prayers for years. ... We join all of Idaho and America in expressing our joy and welcoming this wonderful news. We look forward to Sgt. Bergdahl's safe return to Idaho and his reunion with family, friends, and all those who have rallied around them. Today, Idaho gives thanks."

    U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo: "We celebrate with Bowe, Bob and Jani Bergdahl today as this wonderful news brings an end to their five-year ordeal. Our prayers have been answered and we offer our thanks for the perseverance of the family and the many Idahoans who have kept this vigil. We appreciate the men and women who made this release possible. I was able to speak with Bob this morning and ... look forward to an Idaho reunion."

    U.S. Sen. Jim Risch: "It is welcome news that Sergeant Bergdahl has been released. Bowe has been held for five years against his will by the Taliban and Haqqani network. I can only imagine the joy and relief that Bowe and his family are feeling at this moment."

    U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson: "I couldn't be more pleased with the news of Bowe Bergdahl's release and the ending of a nearly five-year nightmare for Bowe and his parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl. The prayers of people across Idaho and the nation have been answered and Bowe will soon be headed back to the town he calls home."

    U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador: "I am thrilled that Bowe Bergdahl has been freed and will soon be reunited with his parents. Like many Idahoans, I have been praying for his safe return home."

    Boise Mayor Dave Bieter: "After far too long, Bowe Bergdahl's family will welcome their son home. Wonderful news for Idaho and the nation."

    Larry Kenck, chairman, Idaho Democratic Party: "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. ... We thank President Obama for his commitment to recovering Bowe Bergdahl and for following through."

A truck circled the streets in downtown Hailey on Saturday morning carrying a sign with the news that residents had waited five long years to hear: Bowe Bergdahl had been set free.

The celebration began immediately.

"We got a big 'Hurrah!' in the restaurant," said Joyce Larson, a waitress at Shorty's on Main Street.

The breakfast crowd quickly dug into their pockets and pulled out their cellphones to spread the word. "Everyone in here was on their phone, talking, texting, sending emails," Larson said.

U.S. special operations forces flew into Afghanistan by helicopter and picked up the U.S. Army sergeant about 8:30 a.m. Mountain time. Officials said Bergdahl appeared to be in good health. Ninety minutes later, five prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were released to Qatar in exchange.

Bergdahl was taken prisoner in 2009 and was held by the Haqqani network, a Pakistani group aligned with the Taliban, only two months after he was deployed to Afghanistan as a machine gunner.

Bergdahl's parents appeared Saturday at a White House news conference with President Barack Obama. They read a short statement, expressing their joy and relief, and saying they couldn't wait to hug their only son.

Gov. Butch Otter and other Idaho officials chimed in with their excitement.

"Miss Lori and I couldn't be happier," Otter said. "Bowe has been in all our prayers for years."

But the cheering was not universal. Questions still linger about whether Bergdahl was captured while on duty or whether he willingly walked away from his post. And some Republican congressmen said Obama broke federal law by failing to notify Congress 30 days before any terrorists were transferred from Guantanamo Bay.

In Hailey, though, it was a celebration. Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said he was proud that residents had stood behind Bergdahl over the years. He said the uncertainty over the physical and mental challenges the soldier faced during his captivity pulled residents together.

"The people here believe in faith. This town never lost faith," he said. "We don't leave soldiers behind."

Residents were looking forward to retiring the yellow ribbons tied around nearly all the trees on Main Street and other parts of town.

"We've changed our yellow ribbons several times over the years," Larson said.

Haemmerle said he was on his second ribbon outside the law office he operates with his wife, Jennifer, on Main Street.

Dave Challe, former director of the Boise Valley POW-MIA Corp., which along with many other area veterans groups worked to keep Bergdahl's name in the public conscience and pushed for his release, said he was relieved.

"I'm glad for his parents and the people who stood by for the past five years and kept his memory alive," said Challe, a family friend.

In Boise, resident Lori Bramwell said her family travels several times a year to Hailey and thinks about Bergdahl often.

"We'd see the yellow ribbons every time we went up there and be reminded of him," she said.

Boise resident Ben Orr, who was out Saturday morning riding his bicycle on the Boise Greenbelt, said he was thrilled to hear of Bergdahl's release.

"That's great. I can't think of better news for a Saturday," he said. "It's been a long time coming."

Eagle residents Stephen and Vivian Schrade said their joy over Bergdahl's release was paired with concern for his health and mental state.

"He had to keep up his morale but he probably didn't know where he was half the time," Stephen Schrade said.

Stefanie O'Neill, organizer of Hailey's annual "Bring Bowe Back" event - renamed "Bowe Is Back" for this year, June 28 - also lauded the efforts and tenacity of Bergdahl's parents.

"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 told The Associated Press. "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."

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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