04.08.10

Prisoner of the Taliban

Who is the American soldier pleading for his life in the video released this week? Jacob Bernstein on Bowe Bergdahl's former life as a ballet dancer, sailor, and son of an Idaho family.

Since June 30, 2009, Bowe Bergdahl has been seen by his friends and family in Idaho just three times—all of them in videos taken by the mujahideen, who captured him in eastern Afghanistan near where he was serving as a member of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

In the first of these videos, taken last July, he appears wearing traditional Afghan dress, with a newly shaved head and the beginnings of a beard.

In the video, he speaks of the fear he feels every day, of the girlfriend back home he hopes to marry, and of his parents and grandparents who he may never see again. “It is very unnerving to be a prisoner,” he says.

Click Below to Watch the Taliban’s Video of Bergdahl

Video screenshot

And he delivers a plea to America to end the war.

“To my fellow Americans who have loved ones over here who know what it’s like to miss them, you have the power to make our government bring them home,” he says. “Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here wasting our time and our lives.”

In a subsequent video that was released on Christmas Day in 2009, and then again in a video released on April 7, Bergdahl was shown reiterating that same message.

Each time, he has appeared healthy. He has said that he hasn’t been mistreated physically, and has talked about the United States and its own history of using coercive techniques and physically abusive practices on prisoners of war.

Representatives for the U.S. government have said the videos are deplorable propaganda for the Taliban. To the people who know Bergdahl back home, they are the only bit of good news in what has been a harrowing nine-month ordeal—evidence that perhaps he’s still OK.

Hailey, Idaho, a town of 7,000 people, has been transformed by Bergdahl’s capture. Yellow ribbons are everywhere. Signs on people’s lawns say “Bring Bowe home,” though it’s not entirely clear who’s capable of making that happen. Residents have gotten used to the camera crews and the reporters, to the point where they now know the difference between on and off the record and can speak like trained public-relations professionals.

Bowe's family has declined all efforts to be interviewed, thanking people for their concern but requesting that their privacy be respected.

Speaking of the most recent video, Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard, says, “I know his family has seen it. They were heartened by what they saw physically of their son.”

Adds Sue Martin, who runs the coffee shop where Bergdahl worked as a barista before enlisting: “People are encouraged to see Bowe looking healthy. But it does renew their concerns.”

Marsano says it’s “very hard” to know what to make of Bergdahl’s comments about the war at this point.

Hailey is the seat of the only one of Idaho’s 44 counties that votes Democratic. Many people there oppose the war, though it’s not something they want to discuss all that much.

“It doesn’t matter what people’s feelings are about the war,” says Martin. “It’s about Bowe being in an unjust and dangerous situation.”

By all accounts, Bergdahl’s whole family is popular. His father works as a UPS driver and his mother is a housewife.

Lucy Fuller, a family friend, says Bergdahl’s brother-in-law is in the military, though she isn’t sure if he’d been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Bergdahl appears to have had a normal childhood, growing up in what Fuller describes as “a solid non-denominational Christian family.”

After junior high, Bergdahl was home-schooled, and from there went to work at Zaney’s River Street Coffee, where he was seen as a famously kind guy.

“Sometimes Bowe would go on an adventure,” says Martin, “but he always had a job when he came back. He’s a nice young man.”

At one point, Martin says, Bergdahl rode his bike from Idaho to California. Another time, he went to Europe. He also became involved in sailing, took ballet (for five years, according to a recent Associated Press article), and fenced.

No one would have predicted he’d be held for nearly a year and offered up for release by the Taliban on the condition that the United States agree to free a woman named Aafia Siddiqui, who is the most prominent female prisoner tied to Al Qaeda.

Friends merely hope for the best.

Says Fuller: “This is a family that’s worked hard for their money and raised their kids to be honest and have good morals and they’ve done a good job of it. I believe Bowe has a lot of inner strength and inner soul that will carry him through. He’s not a wimp.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.