Many sharp turns in Bowe Bergdahl's path to Army

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 2, 2014 

KETCHUM - In 2003, the year he turned 17, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl left his mark on the wet concrete floor of the Strega Tea Bar Gallery and Cafe, a swirling design signed with a florid "B." The drawing is a lasting statement that this liberal-tinctured ski resort town, where he took ballet and fencing lessons, met artists and debated philosophy, had become his second home.

His first, a dozen miles south in Hailey - the worker bee colony to Ketchum's moneyed hive, some residents called it - was a different place altogether. There, Bergdahl was home-schooled by his parents and taught a conservative theology of biblical inerrancy. He learned the ways of guns, became a crack shot and developed an abiding interest in the military. For years, his family's rustic cabin had no telephone.

"It's pretty worldly up in Ketchum," said Lee Ann Ferris, a neighbor of the Bergdahls in Hailey. "Down here, kids aren't exposed to as much."

Today, military investigators are trying to untangle what has become the central mystery of Bergdahl's life: how, and why, he disappeared from his remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, to be captured and held by the Taliban until his release in May in exchange for five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But as part of that investigation, friends and former bosses say, the Army will need to understand Bergdahl's two Idahos and how they came into increasing conflict as the adolescent became a young man and then a soldier.

By the time he was 17 and spending most of his time in Ketchum, Bergdahl was distancing himself from his parents and questioning his religious foundation, friends and his former pastor say. And by the time he was 18, as his peers headed to college and world travel, he had undertaken his own odyssey of adventure and self-discovery, almost all of it alone. He was testing himself, those friends say, looking for his path in life.

He worked as a groundskeeper at a secretive training camp for elite police and military commandos in Mississippi. He tried to join but was rejected by the French Foreign Legion. He tried out the Coast Guard, rode his bike down a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway in California and spent months in Alaska working on a fishing boat. Finally, in 2008, without telling his parents and against the advice of his Ketchum friends, he joined the Army. By early 2009, he was an infantryman on patrol in Afghanistan.

"He'd come a long way, and boy, did he have a long way to go," said Sherry Horton, who runs a wine bar in Hailey where Bergdahl worked and who took him in as a roommate off and on for about three years. "He was a work in progress."

Now 28, Bergdahl is being debriefed about his experiences in Afghanistan and gradually reintegrated into U.S. life at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He could face charges, including desertion, if the Army determines he voluntarily left his outpost, military officials say.

Yet even in Texas, the tensions between his two worlds continue. Since returning, the sergeant has yet to see or speak with his parents, Jani and Robert, although he did send them a letter in the past few days for the first time, according to an official who has been briefed on his progress at Fort Sam Houston. But he has spoken with his closest friend from Ketchum: Kim Harrison, the former owner of the Strega and one of a group of women who sheltered and influenced him from his late teens until he joined the Army.

In perhaps the clearest evidence of his conflicted loyalties, Bergdahl named Harrison as the primary beneficiary of his Army life insurance, military officials said. He also sent her, before his capture by the Taliban, his laptop and personal journal. Parts of the journal, published in The Washington Post, suggested that he had become deeply disenchanted with the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

Harrison declined to comment for this article, as did Bergdahl's parents.

Here in Idaho, friends, acquaintances and former employers paint a fairly consistent portrait of a young man they all agree could be inscrutable: self-reliant and deeply spiritual, hardworking and socially awkward, brimming with restless energy and romantic plans. What they cannot agree on is why he might have walked off his base, as the military says he probably did.

"Bowe was always trying to figure out what was over the next hill," Horton said. "He always wanted to be the most mysterious guy in the room."

GUNS AND MARTIAL ARTS

His journey started in a hill-rimmed valley creased by a dirt road, west of Hailey's small downtown.

The Bergdahls came to the area from California in 1980. Robert Bergdahl, an anthropology major who dropped out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, poured concrete, waxed skis and worked for the Ketchum Fire Department to pay the bills. One of their pastors described Jani and Robert Bergdahl as "hippies" who had moved to Idaho to ski, as many young people do, and to change their lives, a not uncommon path at the time.

By 1986, the year Bowe was born, Robert Bergdahl was driving for UPS and had bought, for $50,000, 40 acres of sagebrush and trees where he built a small house. Home schooling and religion were the twin pillars of their family life, friends said.

"We wanted to teach them truth, not necessarily the way the government has written history," said Jean Rosser, a mother of six whose family became close to the Bergdahls from the time Bowe Bergdahl and his older sister, Sky, were small. "The world began with Genesis, not with the Big Bang."

The Bergdahls, Rosser said, felt the same way.

Although they lived in a remote area, the Bergdahls were not reclusive. Along with other home-school families, they skied at Sun Valley, learned about building log homes and practiced winter survival skills. In his spare time, Bowe Bergdahl spent many hours at shooting ranges and read books about military strategy and martial arts, with a particular interest in the Samurai and Ninja warriors of Japan.

The Bergdahls, after worshipping for a time at a church near their home, started driving over two hours to Boise to attend an Orthodox Presbyterian Church, part of a small denomination that broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the 1930s and that interprets the Bible literally, does not ordain women and disapproves of same-sex marriage and abortion.

Bowe Bergdahl was baptized in the church as an adolescent, a decision that even one of the family's pastors thought might have been a misstep, coming at a time when his ideas about religion seemed to be evolving.

"It may not have been wise to do that," the pastor, Glenn Ferrell, said. He added that the teenager "displayed some of the weaknesses of home-schooled children: They are unrealistic about the world."

Although his home life was strict, Bergdahl was given a long leash by his parents to explore Idaho on foot or bike or motorcycle and was taught to be self-sufficient.

"If there's anyone from Blaine County who could take a compass and a knife and walk off into the mountains to survive on squirrels, it was Bowe," one friend said.

He routinely rode his bike to various jobs, including one at the Blaine County Gun Club, a shooting range about 13 miles from his home where he loaded trap machines and cleaned up.

"He was one of the better workers I've ever had," said David Rosser, Jean's husband and former president of the club. "He would put his head down and do what you told him to do. He was respectful and took orders well."

Eventually, his explorations brought him to Ketchum and to the Strega. He was charmed by the fencing taught in town, started taking classes and became a respected competitor, known for his poise and deft ability to parry an opponent's attack. Strong enough to hoist and twirl a ballerina, he also took ballet at the Sacred Cow Yoga Studio, once owned by Mariel Hemingway.

Through the studio and the tea house, Bergdahl met people with roots outside Idaho and got a taste of a broader world of ideas at events about global and environmental issues. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was a subject for discussion. And he found a kind of shelter as well, with a circle of older women who all said they saw something they wanted to nurture or protect.

"He was a seeker," said Sue Martin, the owner of Zaney's River Street Coffee House in Hailey, where Bergdahl worked as a barista.

He asked for, and received, special dispensation to disappear for days, on a bike ride, a hike, or some other journey. He mostly did not say where he was going, and Martin did not ask. In exchange for the unorthodox schedule he offered to find substitutes for any missed shifts, and he lived up to the bargain, she said. When he was gone, the shifts were covered.

Martin and the other women, including Horton, saw him as a sensitive but awkward young man, seemingly unacquainted with some of the niceties of social interaction. One described having to teach him dining table etiquette. Horton recalled trying to get him to fit in at a concert in a bar, giving him a beer to hold onto as a sort of prop to get him out of his shell and away from the back wall. It worked but only to a point: The bottle was still clutched in his hand, warm and barely sipped, at the end of the show.

ENLISTING, AND ENLISTING

In the summer of 2004, Bergdahl arrived by bus in a suburb of Memphis, meeting a driver who took him to the Mid-South Institute of Self-Defense Shooting in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, near the Mississippi River. The institute was owned by John Shaw, who has a home in Hailey and had met Bergdahl at the gun club there and also knew his father.

It was no ordinary shooting range. Established in 1981, the school after 2001 closed its doors to civilians and made its courses available solely to police, military and other government agencies.

It had an especially close relationship with Special Operations forces, particularly the Navy SEALs, whose members would stay for weeks practicing on outdoor firing ranges and in "shoot houses" that were specially built to simulate raids. Students could fire their weapons at targets as they swept through the structures, using live ammunition and explosives, just as they would during a "capture or kill" mission on deployment.

In an interview, Shaw said that he hired Bergdahl to cut the grass at the sprawling camp, but that the teenager got to witness some of the action and observe real commandos up close.

"They see people going out on the range and doing this," Shaw said, referring to the groundskeeping staff. "Whether he was influenced by that, I couldn't tell you."

Shaw said he might have kept Bergdahl on staff and advanced him. But with little warning that fall, he said, Bergdahl announced that he was heading to France to join the Foreign Legion.

"He just said, 'I'm going to go join,'" Shaw said.

The Foreign Legion, which screens candidates based on medical and physical examinations and what it calls "psycho-technical tests," ultimately rejected Bergdahl. But a seed had been planted. Several months later, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, and although his friends in Ketchum were concerned about his ability to handle military life, some thought the decision made sense, especially because of the Coast Guard's mission of rescue at sea.

"He wanted to help the world," said Martin, his boss at the coffee bar. "He talked about the Fire Department at one point."

But he left the Coast Guard boot camp after just 26 days for unexplained reasons, according to the Coast Guard, which declined to provide details, citing privacy concerns. His friends were not surprised.

"He was so idealistic that taking orders was a bit of an issue," Horton said. "I think that he went in thinking, 'This is what I'm going to do,' not realizing that you do what they say, not what you want to do."

Those setbacks set off what several friends said became a year period of increasingly ambitious quests for adventure. After delivering a car to the West Coast for a friend he began a bicycle ride along the Pacific Coast Highway in California, planning, he told friends, to reach South America. But he was struck by a vehicle and his bike was wrecked. With no serious injuries but bruised pride, he returned to Idaho. Next he trekked to Alaska and worked on a small commercial fishing boat during salmon season, telling his friends back home stories about a nefarious captain, squalid quarters and dangerous working conditions.

But the call of the military never went away. And when he started in 2008 to talk about joining the Army - or announced to some friends that he already had - the question came up again: Could he take orders? He told friends he had matured and could handle it, but many were skeptical. Others, though, felt the military life might be a perfect fit.

"Bowe was already disciplined; he was already tough," said David Rosser, his former boss at the Idaho shooting range.

He added that Bergdahl might have craved the order of military life after so much searching.

"Bowe went through a phase here when he was fairly lost," he said.

Lean and muscled, capable with a rifle, he seemed to do well in boot camp this time around, and fellow soldiers have said he talked about wanting to join the Rangers or another Special Operations unit. After a stint at Fort Richardson in Alaska, his unit - the 2nd Platoon, Blackfoot Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Regiment - deployed to Paktika province near Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan in early 2009.

Yet there is evidence that time had not eroded his independence or his wanderlust. On at least two occasions before he disappeared in Afghanistan, military officials now say, he left his base without permission for short periods and then quietly returned. His platoon mates described him as a capable soldier, at times sociable but at others standoffish - preferring to read rather than watch DVDs. An image of his eccentricity stayed with many of them: His preferred mode of consuming tobacco was by smoking a pipe.

In Afghanistan, fellow soldiers said, he seemed initially enthusiastic about the U.S. mission. But after witnessing his first major firefight - no Americans were hurt - he seemed to fluctuate between wanting to do battle with the Taliban and endorsing the more humanitarian approach to counterinsurgency, like distributing food and medicine to Afghan villagers. The two sides of his Idaho life seemed to be playing out at war.

One of those platoon mates recalled the sergeant musing once about what it would take to walk to India. But the remark seemed to be a joke, and no one took it seriously. Those soldiers also have said they saw no evidence that Bergdahl was psychologically unraveling.

In the weeks before his disappearance, he shared sharp criticisms of his platoon, some of his commanders and the Army itself, with friends and relatives back home via emails or a Facebook page he kept under the name Wandering Monk. To those friends, he seemed to be expressing a growing disenchantment with the war.

They have since read news reports saying that a preliminary Army review concluded that he walked away from his base voluntarily. They theorize that he was merely visiting Afghan police officers whom he had befriended, who were based just up the hill from his loosely fortified outpost. But they acknowledge that with Bowe Bergdahl, almost everything was a mystery.

"I don't know what his intentions were," Horton said. "Yeah, he did walk off the base - that's proven. But we don't know he wasn't walking back."

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