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After Nearly 5 Years, Parents Of POW Bergdahl Prepare To See Son Again

Otto Kitsinger
AP Photo
Jani and Bob Bergdahl speak to the media during a news conference at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho, on Sunday, June 1, 2014, regarding their son, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Sgt.

After five years in captivity, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is finally free. The American POW is now receiving medical aid at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho was held captive by the Taliban — first in Afghanistan, and later, it's believed, in Pakistan. On Saturday, he was released peacefully in a swap for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Bergdahl's family and his hometown are now preparing for the next chapter.

'You Have Made It'

Bob and Jani Bergdahl stood before rows of reporters in an auditorium at Gowen Field in Boise. They’ve spent the last five years both hoping for and dreading news out of Afghanistan. Finally, the news was good.

“Five years is a seemingly long time … but you have made it,” said Jani Bergdahl.

She told her son through the TV cameras that she couldn't wait to give him a big bear hug. The Bergdahls don’t yet know when they’ll get a chance to do that. Right now, Bowe is working with a medical team in Germany on his mental and physical recovery.

Like his wife, Bob Bergdahl took this opportunity to speak to his son directly. He told his son he admired his character and patience during his captivity.

“But most of all, I'm proud, of how much you wanted to help the Afghan people," Bob Bergdahl said while choking up. "And what you were willing to do to go to that length.”

Bowe Bergdahl likely won't return to his hometown for weeks. From Germany he’ll head to Texas to continue the reintegration process. That’s where his parents will finally see him.

Missing From Base

Bowe Bergdahl grew up down a road that quickly turns to gravel in one of the canyons around Hailey, Idaho. He defied stereotypes. He was an excellent marksman, and a ballet dancer. He loved to be alone in the mountains, but he also loved conversation and people.

Credit IntelCenter

Friends say Bergdahl also craved a way to do something important in the world, and in 2008, Bowe saw enlisting in the Army as his opportunity.

But about six months into his deployment in Afghanistan, Bergdahl went missing from his base. A few weeks later, he turned up in a Taliban propaganda video. On camera, the 23-year-old Bergdahl was hunched and barely looked up.

In the video Bergdahl said he was captured while lagging behind a patrol. But the details of that event have become muddy over the years. In 2012, Rolling Stone published emails indicating Bergdahl was disillusioned by the military's role in Afghanistan and was considering deserting.

The details of what happened that day remain unclear. But whatever happened, veterans groups and POW advocates have rallied around him. Last year, hundreds of veterans on bikes attended an event for Bergdahl in his hometown.

Lynnette Shimmin drove all the way from Salt Lake City. She was frustrated that politicians weren't talking about Bergdahl more.

“He's been the nation's best kept secret for quite a while,” she said.

Coming Home

All that changed on Saturday when President Obama announced that the U.S. had agreed to exchange five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay for Sgt. Bergdahl.

It was the news Hailey, Idaho, had been waiting for. Word of Bowe's release spread through town fast, to a mix of excitement and tears.

At a coffee shop along Main Street, Ed Northen said he got the news from a message his neighbors left.

"We got home, listened to our answering machine and they said, 'Oh we're just celebrating the news and we went 'What?!'" Northen said. "And we went straight to the computer and went online and started reading what we could.”

Northen and his wife, Carmen, attend the same Presbyterian Church as the Bergdahls. Carmen Northen is irritated that some members of Congress are criticizing the prisoner exchange. She said after five years, something needed to be done.

“If it was their son they would do everything," she said. "You have to give something to get something. And to have Bowe safely is the most important thing.”

At the press conference Bob Bergdahl said it’s hard for him and his wife to wait to see their son, but he added, “There's reason for that, and that's because Bowe has been gone so long, that it's going to be very difficult to come back. It's like a diver going deep on a dive and has to stage back up through decompression to get the nitrogen bubbles out of his system. If he comes back up too fast, it could kill him.”

So the Bergdahls will continue to wait. After five years, what’s a few more weeks?

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.

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