HAILEY, Idaho - The Obama administration has started drawing down U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But there's no end in sight for one Northwest soldier.
Yellow ribbons have lined the streets of Hailey, Idaho, since Bowe Bergdahl’s capture in 2009. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Saturday marks three years since the Taliban captured Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He’s the only U.S. soldier known to be in enemy hands. His hometown of Hailey, Idaho remains solidly supportive of its native son, even amid questions about the circumstances of his capture.
It’s hard to find a tree, fence post or telephone poll around Hailey that doesn’t have a yellow bow on it. Many of these bows come from an arts and crafts store on Main Street owned by Jane Drussel.
“Well right now unfortunately I’m all sold out," she says. "I’m awaiting another supply of my yellow ribbon. The Boy Scouts just finished re-doing all the trees in town ...”
Hailey residents freshen up the bows periodically as the ribbon frays and fades in the southern Idaho sun. It all started three years ago, when Bowe Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan. Drussel says for her the ribbon is a gesture of support for Bergdahl’s father, a local UPS driver who she sees almost every day.
“We don’t speak a lot about this, but you can see by the look on his face, and the sadness … and it’s … to my heart.”
Drussel adds something that helps explain why the yellow ribbon has become so important.
“You feel very helpless," she says. "As a community you feel helpless. Because, there’s not a lot you can do. Only the people in Washington can do this.”
And earlier this year, it looked like the people in Washington were making progress. The U.S. and factions of the Taliban appeared ready to negotiate a peace deal -– a deal that would reportedly include swapping Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl.
The Bergdahls’ next-door neighbor Lee Ann Ferris says Bowe’s parents were elated.
Bowe Bergdahl, pictured at age 16. Photo courtesy of Sue Martin
“I think Bob and Jani really felt he was coming home in April," she says. "So we were all excited, we all got our hopes up and everything. And then ... it all fell apart.”
Details of what happened are not clear. There was the accidental burning of Qurans in Afghanistan. Then, a U.S. soldier from western Washington went on a shooting rampage there. Peace negotiations stalled.
Bowe Bergdahl’s parents had remained resolutely out of the spotlight for nearly three years. But this spring, they started to criticize the government’s slow-moving efforts get their son out of captivity. In print articles and at this Memorial Day rally at the nation’s capital, Bob Bergdahl called for action.
Jane Drussel makes yellow “Bows for Bowe” at her store Jane’s Artifacts in downtown Hailey, Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
“Bowe, if you can hear me, you are not forgotten, and so help me God, you will come home," the elder Bergdahl said. "We will not leave you behind.”
“Three years have gone by and their son still isn’t home. I think anyone can understand the frustration that would build.” says Col. Tim Marsano. He is the media liaison for the Bergdahls, who are now declining all further interviews.
Marsano says the move did achieve its goal -– people were speaking about Bowe Bergdahl at the highest levels in the Department of Defense.
In fact, it’s often the family speaking out that spurs the government to action in POW cases. That’s according to Richard Samuels. He studies political captivity with MIT’s Center for International Studies.
"It’s an issue of political emotion," Samuels explains. "There are very few issues that tug at the communitarian heartstring the way a kidnapping does.”
But other details also came out in recent news reports that Samuels says diverge from the usual script. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that Bowe sent an email shortly before his capture that indicated deep disillusionment with the military. The article suggests Bowe walked off the base on his own.
“If in fact he was -- if he had deserted and then been picked up by the Taliban," Samuels says, "it makes it more difficult then for him to become the iconic hero of a political captivity drama.”
Bowe Bergdahl officially remains “missing/captured.” And Col. Marsano says while the exact circumstances of his disappearance are not known, for now they make no difference.
“We in the military want him back," he says. "That’s our sole purpose right now. Get him home.”
Outside of Hailey, Idaho, Mary Shoemaker sits on her front porch, surrounded by hay fields and mountains that seem to rise up out of the fields without warning. It’s the same landscape that Bowe grew up in. Shoemaker knew him as a child.
“I have a picture -- they were over to our place and we had rabbits and he’s out there playing with the bunnies, chasing the bunnies around the yard," Shoemaker says. "Yeah, I think he was an outdoors boy.”
Shoemaker says people here are unfazed by recent news reports.
“I think the community has shown their support in this. He’s a captured soldier.”
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing June 30, 2009 in Afghanistan and was later reported captured by the Taliban. U.S. Dept. of Defense photo
Bowe Bergdahl will be the honorary grand marshal of Hailey’s Fourth of July parade this year. When they chose him, they had hoped he would be home for it.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network