America celebrates the release of a young soldier who allegedly abandoned his post after growing disillusioned with the war in Afghanistan http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10868673/Bowe-Bergdahl-a-darker-story-behind-the-release-of-Americas-last-prisoner-of-war.html
By Raf Sanchez, Washington
7:00PM BST 01 Jun 2014
The little mountain town of Hailey in the rural state of Idaho is readying a hero's welcome.
Its single shopping street is lined with bright yellow balloons and signs to greet Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl when he finally returns home after five long years as America's only prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
"Bowe is free at last!" reads one banner. "Our prayers have been answered!"
At Zaney's coffee house, where the 28-year-old worked before joining the military, well-wishers embrace and admire the large 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.
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.
Bowe Bergdahl was raised in a cabin with no phone 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 last five years, Mr Bergdahl has been a tireless campaigner for his son's release, at times lashing out in frustration at President Barack Obama and even trying to contact the Taliban directly on his own.
Sgt Bergdahl is reportedly struggling to speak English after five years in captivity and his father caught Mr Obama's aides offguard on Saturday 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 US 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 hopefulness 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, 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 by US troops, drones and helicopters - smuggled into Pakistan by Taliban fighters.
A Pakistani militant commander told AFP that Sgt Bergdahl engaged with his with captors, teaching them how to play badminton and inviting them to celebrate Easter and Christmas with them.
He also reportedly grew fond of kawa, an Afghan green tea, helped with the cooking and became fluent in the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari.
For five long years, his parents endured taunting videos released by his captors. In one he appears gaunt and with a shaved head, pleading with the US to agree to a deal for his release.
The Taliban's demands were high: they would exchange one low-ranking US soldier for five senior Afghan fighters being held at Guantánamo Bay.
This week, Mr Obama agreed. The Guantánamo detainees were released into the custody of Qatar while Sgt Bergdahl was handed over to American special forces near the Pakistani border.
The young 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 secretary of defence, said the first priority is to restore his health before American 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 finally returns to the United States.
"This is a guy who probably went through hell the last five years," Mr Hagel said. "Let’s focus on getting him well and getting him back with his family.”
Mr and Mrs Bergdahl held an emotional press conference in Idaho, warning that their son faces a long to reintegration into American life.
"Bowe has been gone so long that it's going to be very difficult to come back," Mr Bergdahl said, comparing him to a diver who needed to resurface slowly after a long time underwater. "If he comes up too fast it could kill him."
Both parents wept at different points as they said they had yet to speak directly to the young soldier. Instead they addressed him through the assembled television cameras. "You have your life ahead of you," said Mrs Bergdahl through tears. "Freedom is yours, we will see you soon, my beloved son."
They also hinted at the vast machinery of America's clandestine services that helped secure his son's release, thanking the "parts of your government that you never knew were there".
Republicans, meanwhile, have erupted in anger over the White House's decision to release the Guantánamo detainees in secret and without informing Congress.
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.
"These are the hardest of the hardcore, these are the highest of the high risk people," Mr McCain said. "It's disturbing that these individuals would have the ability to re-enter the fight."
The White House countered that Sgt Bergdahl's health was failing and it had no choice but to act quickly and in secret in order to save his life.
"We found an opportunity, we took that opportunity," said Mr Hagel. "I'll stand by that decision."
Back in Sgt Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey the political battles in Washington and the actual battles in Afghanistan seem far away and the only news that matters is that their missing son is coming home.
Mrs Martin was out fishing, watching her granddaughter catch her first trout, when the US Army called to say Bowe had been freed. She raced back to town to find people in the streets and fire engine sirens blaring in celebration.
"Some people were popping champagne corks and and some were deeply reverent," she said. "But everyone was joyful in their own way."