HAILEY, Idaho • A sign near a downtown Hailey gas station seems to capture it all.
Non-Ethanol Fuel Available.
Bring Bowe Home.
Here in the home of the only current American prisoner of war, locals go about their lives. But thoughts of the young man who once roamed the nearby hills are never far.
The signs and hundreds of yellow ribbons lining the town are an ever-present symbol that while 27-year-old Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl remains caged by the Taliban, he lives healthy and free in the minds of people like Mike Broman.
Such intense focus since Bowe’s June 2009 capture has forever shaped the many who knew him and changed the small town in which Broman has lived since 1993.
“It has brought the real world into our tiny little community,” said Broman, owner of the Wicked Spud Bar and Grill. “We’ve always been not naïve, but sheltered. We have our own little community concerns and this and that. All of a sudden we have this major international issue, and we’re the center of it.”
At the beginning, many locals were skeptical of the media onslaught and kept quiet while supporting Bowe’s parents. But as the clamor died down, they realized they must be proactive by organizing events and speaking to reporters to keep Bowe’s name in headlines.
Intermittent news that officials were making progress in negotiations with the Taliban repeatedly has sparked excitement. Months of silence washed it away.
Hope surged again last month when the Bergdahls received a letter from the young machine gunner, forwarded to them by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Next, the Taliban offered to free Bowe in exchange for the release of five prisoners from Guantanamo. But no more news has surfaced in the month since.
“It’s a horrible roller-coaster ride,” said Col. Tim Marsano, public affairs officer for the Idaho National Guard and acting media liaison for the Bergdahl family.
In Hailey, all things Bowe come back to Zaney’s River Street Coffee House, where he used to work between far-flung adventures. The store now feels more like a chapel dedicated to the man who represents something more to those world travelers who visit it.
To Sue Martin, he’s “everybody’s son.”
“He’s a homegrown, small-town Idaho man with a quest to know the world,” said Martin, who owns Zaney’s. “He’s just a good-hearted person, and I think it touches them. They want to know Bowe.“
Bowe always was very quiet at first, Martin said. But as you got to know him, you would discover his “diverse” interests, his role as a “seeker” who wants to learn about the world.
“He wasn’t really self-promoting. You had to really find out about him,” she said.
Bowe spent his youth fencing, riding motorcycles, dancing ballet, shooting guns and taking grand adventures — once to Alaska to work on a commercial fishing boat, said Sherry Horton, Bowe’s longtime friend and dance instructor at Sun Valley Ballet School.
“His essence was so different,” said Horton, who now owns DiVine, a downtown wine bar.
Horton said he was an intellectual who would spend hours debating politics and religion with her for fun.
She called him “Boomerang” — he always returned home with grand stories. Bowe used Horton’s home as a base for his adventures until he left for the Army.
Bowe joined the Army hoping to make the world a better place, said Lee Ann Ferris, the Bergdahls’ neighbor of 18 years.
Ferris said she watched Bowe grow up hunting squirrels in her backyard, and she was glad to see him ship off to see the world. But she also was nervous about his naïveté and the state of the war.
Four years after his capture, hope still energizes Ferris. But she can’t shake her empathy for Bowe’s parents, Bob and Jani.
“You kind of go with the ups and downs of the parents and how disappointed they get when it doesn’t come through,” she said. “You feel so heartsick for them, really.”
Bob and Jani declined an interview with the Times-News, but they gave a statement through Martin on Thursday.
They trust Bowe will come home, Martin said.
“They are content to let the people behind the scenes do their job,” she said. “All of the people behind the scenes in many facets of the world and current situations. They remain confident and patient (in) the diplomatic resolution for our parties.“
Bob and Jani still don’t like dealing directly with the media, Col. Marsano said, but they speak when they feel it’s necessary to spur action at the federal level.
“I have got at least 500 phone calls, personal calls, emails, just like what we are doing right now, and everybody wants to speak with them directly,” Marsano said. “But can you imagine if all 500 of those went to them directly?“
When Martin and others close to Bowe heard that a soldier had been captured in Afghanistan, they cobbled together what they knew about Bowe’s last known location.
“There was no other reality — it had to be Bowe,” Martin said.
Marsano, who has lived in Hailey for 25 years, worked to prepare Bob and Jani for the eventual media onslaught. The Bergdahls did not want to shoulder the burden alone and asked Martin to also speak for the family.
She said she agreed but “had no idea what spokesperson for the media was.” Since then, she has grown from nervous coffee shop owner to steadfast spokeswoman speaking directly to the Taliban.
After the capture first was confirmed, Zaney’s filled with reporters, cameras, lights and television hosts waiting to interview Martin. She was scared. She didn’t want to say something that would endanger Bowe, but she didn’t know what might jeopardize him.
During the two-minute sound check, Martin wondered aloud why the name “Matt Lauer” sounded so familiar. The media gasped among themselves and clamored when she explained she hadn’t watched TV in 35 years.
“The whole place was in a panic,” she said. “One lady in the corner said, ’I knew somebody else one time who didn’t have TV, and they were fine.’“
The calamity helped her relax and pull off three live television interviews in a row.
Most recently, Martin was interviewed by Al Jazeera. The reporter told her the story would air in Afghanistan and be broadcast specifically to the Taliban.
“She said, ’Do you have anything you’d like to say to the Taliban?’” Martin recalled, cracking a smile.
Realizing the magnitude of the opportunity, she paused a long time before answering. She still isn’t sure if what bolted through her mind was what came out of her mouth.
“I said … I’m grateful for this opportunity to resolve a situation that’s difficult for everybody.”
Martin has been profoundly changed by outreach from around the world focused on her coffee shop, she said.
A man gathered cans on the side of the highway to buy a POW-MIA flag and other items for her shop.
Phone calls have come in from around the world.
Travelers have arrived from far and wide to sign the store’s yellow board and guest book.
A woman broke down in tears looking at a Bowe article in a Norwegian magazine the store keeps.
Another woman took a ribbon from Hailey to California, had her congregation sign it and later brought it back.
“I can go on and on,” Martin said.
It’s all made her aware of “how much we all share all over the world.” she said. “How much they care about Bowe, and everybody is hopeful for a peaceful resolution for everybody.”
Horton said the situation has made her live life to the fullest. She’ll often find herself thinking about how much Bowe would like to be with her during one of her adventures.
“You kind of live for two,” she said.
In resort towns like Hailey, other people’s kids are important to everyone, Ferris said.
“We’re kind of a family up here,” she said.
As such, the town’s collective consciousness has evolved over the past four years, Broman said.
“I think he’s on everybody’s mind all the time,” he said. “The only silver lining I can see throughout this whole thing is that it really has given this community something to rally around and come together over.“
Hailey will always be different. It’s as if “we’ve lost a bit of innocence” that won’t ever come back, Horton said.
As the calendar turned and the media spotlight on Hailey dimmed, Bob and Jani, along with locals who knew Bowe, realized they couldn’t continue to shield themselves from reporters, Horton said.
“At first if the media came up, it was, ’Yes, I know Bowe. No, I don’t have a comment,’” she said.
But people outside of Idaho need to be constantly reminded that Bowe remains caged, Horton said.
“It’s in our minds here everyday, the ribbons, the banners, the stickers. But the media is now helping us get it everywhere else again. They have become like a new character in our little saga.“
Some, like Broman, are disappointed in the national media’s coverage.
“You don’t hear about him on CNN, you don’t hear about him on any of the big networks and I don’t know if that’s for national security purposes or what,” he said.
Horton is frustrated that no one in government seems to be doing anything to secure Bowe’s release, Horton said. If they are doing something, they aren’t letting people know through national media, she said.
Bowe “is not forgotten” because of locals tying ribbons, riding motorcycles and talking with the media — not because of politicians, she said.
“We feel like we’re banging down the door. But maybe that’s not the way to handle it, we don’t know. But sweeping it under the rug or not addressing it at all is not the way to handle it. No government official ever addresses this, unless directly questioned by an organization.“
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he and U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, are working closely with federal officials on negotiations for Bowe. Many locals may feel disenfranchised because the two can’t say much about classified information, Crapo said.
“I don’t think there is any way to get around that,” the senator said. “We must protect the process by which our … officials are proceeding and not let information be leaked to … the enemy when it could cause an interference with our efforts.“
As to Horton’s question of why more congressmen aren’t using the media to keep Bowe in headlines, Crapo said he’s not sure that would be “helpful in facilitating the case.“
“Maintaining our ability to keep the information about our operations confidential I think is a higher priority,” he said.
John Sandy, Risch’s chief of staff, said the senator is monitoring the situation carefully but can’t say much because of his involvement on federal intelligence and foreign relations committees.
Staff for U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, did not respond to Times-News requests for a statement.
Crapo said he has spoken about Bowe with military leaders and intelligence officials at all levels in the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan, including those close to negotiations at the State Department and in the Pentagon.
“We can say it remains a priority for us to not only locate him and determine whether there’s a way to obtain his release, but also to work with any developments that come along the way if there are negotiations that could ultimately result in his release,” Crapo said.
On Ribbons and Returning
While locals wait for word from their congressmen, many keep their minds occupied and hands busy by keeping up the many ribbons around town, said Geegee Lowe, office manager at the Hailey Chamber of Commerce. They are a “silent but very great statement.“
“When I go down the road, I may stop and put 10 new ones up or fix them up so they’re nicer,” she said. “With the wind and the sun here, some look better than others.“
Merchants use storefronts to display messages of hope for Bowe, such as the banner that has hung for three years over the entrance of Windemere Real Estate. Receptionist Monica Hebert walks under that sign every day and thinks of Bob Bergdahl, who was the office’s United Parcel Service delivery man.
“One day Bob said, ’Every day, when I turn the corner, that’s what I see. It means a lot to me to see that banner,’” Hebert said. “That makes you feel good. I mean, it’s just a banner.“
Bowe will come home, Horton is sure. His willpower and strong mind can get her Boomerang through anything.
But coming home might be the hardest part. The once private, reserved man will forever be in the public eye.
“There is no more going to a restaurant,” Horton said. “There is no more having normal anything. People are constantly going to want a piece of him.
“It is just going to change his life to the point where I hope it doesn’t change him.”
Ferris said she often imagines Bowe driving home and seeing the ribbon she cared for on her mailbox post. She knows he’ll think of how they tended to it and replaced it as it frayed. He’ll know the love, care and hope tied into them, she said.
“I think he’s going to be super embarrassed,” Horton said. “He is so incredibly shy that I have a feeling like, ’I can’t believe you guys did all this. My picture is everywhere, on every bumper sticker? You’ve got to be kidding me.’“