Hero's welcome for US soldier despite desertion
The little mountain town of Hailey in the rural state of Idaho was preparing a hero's welcome yesterday for Sgt Bowe Bergdahl when he returns home from five years as America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
At Zaney's coffee house, where the 28-year-old worked before joining the army, well-wishers embraced beside a poster board covered in a half decade's worth of handwritten messages of support.
"To those of us in Hailey, Bowe is certainly a hero," said Sue Martin, the owner of Zaney's and Sgt Bergdahl's former boss. "Bowe is free at last!" read one banner. "Our prayers have been answered!"
But behind the scenes of small town celebration is a darker and more complicated story about a young soldier who allegedly abandoned his post after growing disillusioned with America's wars and the potentially illegal deal struck by the White House to free him.
Like the popular drama 'Homeland', Sgt Bergdahl's story is not a straightforward tale of an all-American hero.
Bowe Bergdahl was raised in a cabin with no telephone in Idaho's Wood River Valley, a sparse and rugged corner of the American west. He and his sister were home schooled by their father, Bob Bergdahl, an intense woodsman who trained them to shoot and survive in the wild.
For the past five years, Mr Bergdahl has been a tireless campaigner for his son's release, at times lashing out in frustration at US President Barack Obama and even trying to contact the Taliban himself.
Sgt Bergdahl is reportedly struggling to speak English after five years in captivity and his father caught Mr Obama's aides off guard on Saturday night when he began to speak Pashto before the television cameras at the White House. "I'm your father, Bowe," he said in the language of his son's captors.
Sgt Bergdahl took an unusual route into the military, studying ballet and joining a sailing expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific before attempting to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. Only after being rejected by France did he join the US army.
He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 full of idealistic conviction that he and his comrades could push back the Taliban and improve life in the long-subjugated country.
But hope soon gave way to despair after his unit began to take casualties and he saw how US troops treated the Afghans they were supposed to be saving. "These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid," he wrote in an email to his parents on June 27, 2009.
Three days later, according to 'Rolling Stone' magazine, the 23-year-old soldier simply walked off his base in Patika province, carrying a knife, his diary and a small camera.
He was captured almost immediately and – despite a frantic search – smuggled into Pakistan by Taliban fighters.
For five long years, his parents endured taunting videos released by his captors.
The Taliban's demands were high: they would exchange one low-ranking US soldier for five senior Afghan fighters being held at Guantanamo Bay.
This week, Mr Obama agreed. The Guantanamo detainees were released into the custody of Qatar while Sgt Bergdahl was handed over to US special forces near the Pakistani border.
The soldier, who was healthy enough to walk to the helicopter that carried him to safety, is now being treated at a hospital in Germany.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, said the first priority was to restore his health before intelligence officers begin to debrief him in the hope of extracting valuable information on the Taliban.
He declined to comment on the possibility that Sgt Bergdahl could face a court martial for desertion when he returned to the US.
The White House's decision to release the Guantanamo detainees in secret and without informing Congress has infuriated many on the Right.
US law states that the president must give members of Congress 30 days' notice before transferring detainees out of the controversial prison base.
Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, also raised concerns over whether the tiny state of Qatar could prevent the former prisoners from again threatening the US. (© Daily Telegraph, London)