By John Miller
HAILEY, Idaho — The father and mother of the only known U.S. prisoner of war plan to speak on Saturday afternoon to a big crowd in their central Idaho hometown just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl were already on a list of speakers at the "Bring Bowe Back" celebration in Hailey, Idaho, when the Taliban proposed the prisoner swap on Thursday.
Organizer Stefanie O'Neill said the parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, captured four years ago June 30, haven't wavered in their pledge to address those who gather, a group that will include as many as 1,000 POW-MIA activists aboard motorcycles riding into town.
Though yellow ribbons on Main Street trees and "Bring Bowe Home" placards in Hailey shop windows are a constant reminder of the 27-year-old Bergdahl's captivity, O'Neill said the Taliban offer has lent an addition element of urgency — and hope — to the event.
"We're not a community without Bowe," O'Neill said. "We're doing our best, but we need him back."
Bob Bergdahl plans to ride his son's dirt bike as part of the motorcycle procession that will travel north on Idaho State Highway 75 to Hailey's Hop Porter Park. That's where young four Norway maples have been planted overlooking the children's playground to commemorate each of the four years Bowe Bergdahl been held captive following his June 30, 2009 capture in Afghanistan.
He's believed held somewhere in Pakistan, but the Taliban said they would free him in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay, the American installation on the southeastern tip of Cuba that's housed suspected terrorists following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The militant group's proposition came just days ahead of possible talks between a U.S. delegation and Taliban members in Qatar.
The discussions would be the first U.S.-Taliban talks in nearly 1 1/2 years, and the prospect that they could include discussions over Bergdahl have raised his family's spirits in Hailey, according to Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, a family friend.
The discussions are just the latest good news Bob and Jani Bergdahl have received in recent weeks.
"They are very hopeful and very positive that this is a huge step in the right direction," said friend Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, who was with the Bergdahls at their home outside of Hailey when they got the news. Only weeks ago the couple received the first, handwritten letter from their son since his capture, channeled through the International Committee of the Red Cross. That, along with this latest revelation, has boosted their optimism, Thibedeau-Eddy said.
The 7,000 who live in Hailey are a mix of long-timers and newcomers drawn by the region's beauty and outdoor diversions: fly-fishing in the Big Wood River, mountain biking along the same high-desert trails where Bergdahl once rode his motorcycle.
Many here had never even met the young soldier who was homeschooled and joined the Army at 22. But that matters little, residents said. Perhaps in a big city, Bergdahl and his family's ordeal would have remained out of sight, out of mind. Not so in a close-knit place such as Hailey.
One reason the community has remained focused on Bergdahl's return is the steady, unwavering faith of his parents, said preschool teacher Betsy Castle as she supervised a group of children playing on the swings at Hailey's Hop Porter Park, near the place where Bergdahl's maple trees are planted.
"His parents have kept hope, and that's just rippled out into the community," said Castle, who didn't know Bergdahl. "There's also something about him being captured that has kept our minds focused on what's going on in Afghanistan.
"It's brought it home."
Before their son's capture, Bob and Jani Bergdahl sought out a relatively isolated existence for themselves and their son and daughter, Sky. Their modest home is off a dirt road about 5 miles outside of Hailey. Surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills, the place is now guarded by a closed gate, two barking dogs and a "No Trespassing" sign. They have repeatedly declined requests for media interviews.
But town residents said the couple are now two of the most-recognized members of the community — in large part because of the way they've dedicated themselves to their missing son. Bob Bergdahl learned some Pashto, the language spoken by his son's captors; he made a video, distributed via the Internet in May 2011, in a bid to appeal directly to the Taliban for his son's freedom.
Though Bob Bergdahl has retired from his UPS delivery job, he is still seen going about business in town. Mark Kashino, who owns an art gallery on Hailey's Main Street and has since befriended the family, said it's impossible to see the father and not think of his son.
Back in 2009, Kashino said, some people were admittedly skeptical of Bergdahl's chances of surviving his ordeal, but that's given way to a stubborn, if realistic, kind of optimism that has been buoyed over the years by the sporadic release of video footage showing Bergdahl alive. The military has never detailed circumstances of his disappearance or capture, and he is not classified as a deserter. He was initially listed as "duty status unknown" and is now considered "missing-captured."
"Any of the cynicism is superseded by the hope," said Kashino, whose front window sports a "Bring Bowe Back" sign. "As humans, we tend to hope for the best. On top of that, the reality is, the terrorists have found out that Bowe is worth a lot in trade." (Among the five at Guantanamo being considered for the swap is Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban chief of army staff and the deputy minister of defense, U.S. and Afghan officials have said.)
Though the Bergdahls generally have shunned the spotlight, they have spoken to crowds on several occasions over the years, including a motorcycle rally last May on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where Bob made a public promise to his son: "We will not leave you behind."
They are scheduled to speak again during Saturday's rally at Hop Porter Park, where Bob Bergdahl planned to ride his son's motorcycle to the park alongside a group of bikers. They will travel north on Highway 75, past all of those yellow ribbons still lining the road.
Stefanie O'Neill, a Hailey mother who is one of the organizers of the event, said the four maples planted to commemorate Bergdahl's years in captivity will get permanent yellow ribbons at Saturday's ceremony — the kind that never fade.
Still, she hopes the next event will be a homecoming celebration, because this Hailey resident has no intention of seeing yet another tree planted marking another year of Bergdahl's captivity.
"We've always told everybody, we don't want a fifth tree," O'Neill said. "We've left no room for a fifth tree."
Video of Bergdahl interview released by Taliban in 2009