In June 2010, Robert Bergdahl, the father of released American POW Bowe Bergdahl, gave a speech at an Idaho Republican Party fundraiser. In one of his first public appearances during his son's five-year captivity, he asked the conservative audience to show compassion for his son's captors—and, in a twist that foretold the plot of Homeland—he alleged that the United States had killed one of those captor's children with a drone strike.
In the past week, Bowe Bergdahl’s case has grown into a full-blown political firestorm. The 2010 speech was not televised, but it was one of the first sparks. It was Robert Bergdahl's first turn as either a tool or technician of national politics in his family's struggle.
The Idaho fundraiser was an election year event, and the day's other speakers—Idaho Senator Jim Risch, then-national-party-chairman Michael Steele, radio host Dennis Prager, and a belligerent stand-up comic named Eric Golub—took the usual shots at President Obama and rallied partisans to donate money to November's cause. [I covered the event as a reporter for AOL News.]
"There are many things that can hurt America," Senator Risch said. "Al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, the Taliban—they can all hurt us. But they can't destroy us. This [Obama] Administration can destroy us."
It was four years before Bob and Jani Bergdahl would know that their son's imagined execution would not be videotaped for Taliban propaganda. The traditional symbols of MIA-POW remembrance were laid out before the speakers' podium—an empty table set for one with a white cloth, a red rose in a vase tied with a yellow ribbon—and Bergdahl began by explaining why he was at a political event at all.
"I grew up in a conservative family in Los Angeles," he said with a smile. "My father was for Goldwater. He wore a Nixon button in our liberal Jewish neighborhood. I was the lone U.C. Santa Barbara surfer who voted for Ronald Reagan." Many in the audience nodded in approval, and then Bergdahl talked about the work of retrieving his son.
His contacts in the Pentagon had assured them that Bowe's safety was an absolute priority. "Everything that can be done has been done. I have [then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral [Mike] Mullen's cell phone number on me right now."
Several people in the room began to cry. Then Bergdahl turned his attention to his son's captors, and his speech veered into the complexities and humanism that, four years later to the week, have confounded the American media and made his private thoughts a national speculation.
"The man who we believe holds Bowe grew up on the lap of his mother learning the Koran. He is a powerful man," Bergdahl said. "We pray for him. He recently lost a son to a CIA missile drone strike. The fact that he didn't kill Bowe right then is incredible. So we pray for him."
This was not idle speculation; Bowe Bergdahl was believed to be held by the militants of the Haqqani Network. In the winter of 2010, several members of the Haqqani family were alleged killed in drone strikes.
Robert Bergdahl made his statement a year before the Showtime series Homeland built a plot line around a nearly identical scenario—an American soldier is captured in a Muslim country and brainwashed to avenge the death, by drone strike, of the captor's young son. It was also before Bergdahl had taught himself Pashto, grown out his beard to its full solidarity length, and posted a YouTube video where he appealed directly, by name, to the men he believed held Bowe.
"No family in the United States understands the detainee issue like ours," Bergdahl says in the May 2011 video, referencing some of the Taliban prisoners who were ultimately released from Guantanamo in exchange for Bowe last Saturday. "Our son's safe return will only heighten public awareness of this. That said, our son is being exploited. It's past time for Bowe, and the others, to come home."
For the first two years of his ordeal, I knew Bob Bergdahl as the local UPS man in Hailey, Idaho, where he was a polite but intense presence outfitted in the iconic brown uniform of American shipping expediency. Throughout the small mountain town, storefront and house windows bore decals of his son's face and the plea, "Bring Bowe Home." When he stopped by with the mail, he smiled, and we all pretended things were normal. During one late-evening delivery, when he saw the office was mostly empty, he asked if he could use the landline. Of course, we told him. Bergdahl dialed out, leaned into the desk, and spoke to his contacts in code names and a clipped military shorthand.
In his video plea, about fifteen months later, he appealed to the captors directly. "Strangely to some, we must also thank those who have cared for our son for almost two years. We know our son is a prisoner and also a guest in your home."
"To the nation of Pakistan our family would wish to convey our compassionate respect. We have watched the violence of war, earthquake, epic floods and crop failures devastate lives all while our son has been in captivity. We have watched your suffering through the presence of our son in your midst. We have wept that God may show his beneficence his mercy and that his peace may come upon the people of Pakistan. A salaam alaikum."
At the GOP fundraiser, the crowd was with Bergdahl when he led a traditional prayer for MIA-POWs. They nodded emphatically when he asked them to pray for his son. But the moment he lost them, when he turned his family's spiritual lens outward, was obvious. They applauded, and a few minutes later, when the comedian made some cracks about Janet Napolitano's weight. Then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele brought the event full circle.
"We are with Bowe," Steele said. "We appreciate the sacrifice of the mother and the father watching their son go off to war. We appreciate it," he said. "But I don't believe this administration, or those of its ilk, appreciate the sacrifice."
After five years, by whatever tactics and strategies and prayers, Robert and Jani Bergdahl will be reunited with their only son. But after a week when their hometown canceled the homecoming event out of safety concerns, when the motivations of the father—along with his politics, religious beliefs, grooming habits and parenting skills—are being dissected on national television, their personal struggle has entered a new phase. With another election year upon them, the Bergdahls may have their son back, but they are captives again, subject to an entirely different and more disturbing sort of exploitation.