Published July 21, 2009
HAILEY, Idaho – To the rest of the world, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl is the frightened soldier who appeared in a Taliban propaganda video after he was captured in Afghanistan.
The people of this Idaho mountain town have a more complete portrait of Bergdahl — that of a hard-working, mild-mannered young man who had a variety of jobs and activities as he searched for a purpose in life and eventually set his sights on the military.
Bergdahl performed with the Sun Valley Ballet School. He was in the Sun Valley Swords fencing club, sparring at a 2003 at the local renaissance fair with a buddy. He was a voracious reader who would frequently spend hours at a local library.
He also bounced between jobs, working two separate stints at a local coffee house, then spending the summer of 2007 cleaning guns and stocking targets at the shooting club just down the road. Co-workers remember him riding his bike everywhere, including on a long-distance California bike tour.
Finally, Bergdahl signed U.S. Army paperwork in June 2008 and went off to basic training in Fort Benning, Ga. He was deployed to Afghanistan in February, and he is now a prisoner of the Taliban.
What exactly happened isn't clear, with conflicting reports of whether he left his base near the Pakistan border willingly, or was taken. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pledged Monday the military was doing everything it could to bring him home.
Meanwhile, those who knew this young man who traded the long blond hair of his youth for the crew cut of an Army private say he was unfailingly polite and hardworking, but clearly on the lookout for something to define his life.
"He was good every which way you looked at it," said Dick Mandeville, the former manager at the Blaine County Gun Club.
Bergdahl showed up at the range in 2007, looking for summer work. He and Mandeville got along well, with Bergdahl's duties including helping shooters on the trap fields, stocking targets and cleaning racks full of rifles.
Bergdahl grew up about six miles west of Hailey, in a humble home with a weathered metal roof set back from the gravel of Croy Creek Road.
His parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, came here years ago for a reason, neighbors said: The seclusion of the high sage hills that flank their place would help them live in peace and quiet. Bowe and his older sister, Sky, were home-schooled. His father worked as a local UPS driver.
Bowe eventually got a job with Sue Martin at Zaney's River Street Coffee House. Not surprisingly, he showed up on his ever-present bicycle looking for a job.
"He had the opening shift. He got along really well with the regulars," said Martin, whose voice Monday was hoarse after enduring hours of interviews with out-of-town media. She was one of the few locals to speak on the record, a decision she made, in part, to take pressure off the camera-shy family.
When asked if she knew what prompted him to join the Sun Valley Ballet School, Martin smiles.
"Bowe was no dummy," she said. "There were beautiful young women in the ballet."
At the cafe, he talked about the prospect of a military future.
His sister had married a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis about eight years earlier.
Consequently, Bergdahl's blond hair went from long to short, a sign he was getting serious. Martin doesn't know exactly why he sought out the Army, but said he was always on the lookout for a new adventure.
"He just wanted to learn everything he could learn," she said. "He was always seeking new experiences."
In the three weeks since Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan, much of Hailey tried to keep word of his captivity from leaking out to the broader public.
First, there was the privacy of Bob and Jani Bergdahl to respect.
Friends and acquaintances also feared a media furor could put his life even more at risk.
"I was shocked when I found out," said Jim Spinelli, head of the Hailey Chamber of Commerce, who attributes this discretion to locals' longtime respect for the privacy of celebrities such as Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks who call this central Idaho resort region their second home.
The circumstances of Bergdahl's capture on June 30 aren't clear.
On July 2, two U.S. officials told the AP a soldier had "just walked off" his base with three Afghans; four days later, the Taliban claimed "a drunken American soldier had come out of his garrison" and was taken by Afghan militants. And in Saturday's video released by the Taliban, Bergdahl indicates he was taken captive after lagging behind on patrol.
As more and more Hailey residents now view the startling 28-minute Taliban video where a shaven-headed Bergdahl tells a captor he fears never being able to hug his family again, many want to do something — anything — to honor him and help speed his return.
Yellow ribbons are tied around trees all over town, and there are signs in virtually every shop window that demand Bowe's return.
Blaine County Sheriff J. Walt Femling, engaged by the Bergdahls as a spokesman, knows the family well. In 2006, he rented one of his apartments to Bergdahl at a time when the then-20-year-old was "just starting out on his own and wanted to have his own place."
Femling said he normally wouldn't have rented to someone so young, but he made an exception because he knew Bergdahl was responsible, and also because he had known his father for more than 20 years.
"He was quiet and curious," Femling said. "He was looking for some of that adventure that 20-year-olds want to do."