Bowe Bergdahl’s Idaho hometown awaits soldier’s return with relief, and concern

The Washington PostJune 3, 2014 

— He’s free, everyone here said in those first euphoric moments. He’s coming home, they said, and now they were realizing that at some point soon, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl will be returning to this tiny town in the Wood River Valley, the place where he grew up and where people have been preparing for his homecoming since he walked off his post in Afghanistan five years ago and disappeared.

For five years, they had tied wide yellow ribbons on the dogwoods that line Main Street and, when those faded, replaced them with fresh ones. But as the actual day of Bergdahl’s homecoming nears, another feeling is washing over Hailey, one more sober than the sheer joy expressed in the bright-yellow posters hastily taped to shop windows Saturday - "Bowe is Free at Last!" they exclaim, next to a photo of the prewar Bergdahl, clean-shaven, head tilted, half-smiling.

Excitement is giving way to concern, and questions: Who is the postwar Bergdahl? Who, exactly, is coming home to Hailey?

"If you see the videos, he doesn’t seem to display an ounce of animosity," Sue Martin was saying to a customer at her coffee shop, referring to the propaganda videos Bergdahl made as a Taliban prisoner, which she has scrutinized for clues to his psychological well-being.

"I don’t think it’s in his nature," said the customer, Jack Flammer.

"If it were, it’d show," Martin said.

"Anyone who has been through that experience," Flammer began, but then he trailed off, as people kept doing when they tried to imagine the person they will soon be trying to help.

Martin took a deep breath. Like so many others in Hailey, she feels partially responsible for the recovery of Bergdahl, who was by all accounts a sensitive young man with a new interest in Buddhism when he left this town to join the Army, and who was released Saturday in a deal that includes the release of five Taliban prisoners from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"I mean, he’s having problems speaking English," said Eric Wesley, who was having a beer at the Power House bar on Main Street, which has a huge "Bowe is Free!" banner outside.

He had watched the White House news conference in which Bergdahl’s father spoke to his son in Pashto, an Afghan language. He had read about how Bergdahl became disillusioned during his deployment, how his fellow soldiers said he simply walked off his observation post one day into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan equipped with nothing more than water, a knife and a compass.

Now Wesley was trying to envision that person arriving here, in Hailey, a tiny town that feels even tinier for the rolling green hills and mountains that seem to embrace it, a grand landscape that looks enough like Afghanistan that Navy SEALs train in the area.

"He’s learned another language," Wesley said. "He’s spent one-fifth of his life steeped in a completely different culture, in a land that does look, amazingly, like here," he said, wondering whether that will make his return more painful or perhaps less jarring. "I don’t know what he will be like." Billy Olsen, a bike mechanic who owns the restaurant, shook his head.

"There are a lot of ifs," he said. "I feel for him so much."

Mark Farris feels for Bowe Bergdahl because he knows him. He spent long hours talking with him before he joined the Army, and after being thrilled at the news of his release, he was becoming increasingly worried as he drove past all the new yellow posters in Hailey’s storefronts, past all the photos of the young, smiling Bowe staring out.

"God knows what he’s like now," Farris said.

If the returning Bowe Bergdahl will be different, the place he left has changed little in five years. Hailey is still the sleepy town that peters out into alfalfa fields, horse farms and smooth hills, a town for people who work mostly in service jobs connected to skiing in nearby Ketchum. Ketchum is still the wealthy resort town surrounded by spectacular homes owned by people such as Tom Hanks.

If he arrives in the coming weeks, Bergdahl will find the rainbow-colored fence made of skis and the Wicked Spud restaurant still here. He will find the valley green and blooming and people who are unlikely to gawk or harbor the hostility that has emerged from some fellow soldiers and others who consider Bergdahl a traitor for walking off his Army post.

"It’s a good place for him to come back to," Farris said. "There’s a lot of compassion for him here. But I can also definitely see it being hard for him to come home here," he added, driving past another huge Bowe banner and remembering the shy, introverted person who left, and who would be uncomfortable with such attention.

Farris thought about the Bowe of his memory: an intense kid who had been exploring eclectic interests, from ballet to poetry to guns, before he decided to join the Army.

"There was a - what’s the word? - a sweetness to him," said Farris, who had tried to talk Bergdahl out of joining the Army. He thought about the Bergdahl who is coming home.

"Five years surrounded by people who hate you? I’m very worried," he said. "Would they have beaten him up, mistreated him? I understand in Afghan culture there’s the custom of treating any stranger as your guest, so maybe -"

He trailed off. He wondered whether Bergdahl’s sensitivity might have helped him in captivity. He wondered whether his stubbornness might have hurt him. He wondered whether he had any contact at all with his family, for instance whether he might have seen the video his father made pleading directly to Taliban leaders to release his son.

"Was he ever shown those tapes? Did he get phone calls? Was he brainwashed? Was he tortured?" Ferris asked. "There are so many questions."

At the coffee shop, Sue Martin talked about the Bowe Bergdahl she knew five years ago, the thoughtful young man who shoveled her driveway and cleared off her car in the weeks after her son died in a motorcycle accident.

Then she thought about the Bowe who was being treated at a military base in Germany at that moment, the Bowe who now speaks Pashto, who is thin and weakened.

"I’ve met people who’ve been prisoners, prisoners in Vietnam," she said, explaining how she has tried to prepare herself. "I have confidence in Bowe, being introspective, and intelligent."

"I don’t know," said Jeff Lynn, over at the Power House restaurant, trying to imagine five years of captivity. "He’s going to be a damaged soul."

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