Bowe Bergdahl stands, hands at his sides, his loose-fitting Pashtun smock and pants bright white against the rocky landscape. The hillsides are dotted with armed Afghans, rifles ready.
A Black Hawk appears in the clouds. After almost five years in captivity, the American soldier, head shaved, eyes blinking, is about to finally see freedom.
“We’ve been looking for you for a long time,” a member of a special forces team shouts over the roar of the copter. Bergdahl breaks down.
It was supposed to be a moment for celebration, America’s only military captive in the 13-year Afghan conflict free at last. And in his hometown in Idaho, where trees are bedecked with yellow ribbons and prayers never stopped, indeed it is.
But for the rest of the country, Bergdahl’s capture and release have thrust him into a furious debate.
From members of Congress to his own former platoon mates, a storm of critics are livid because Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his post and then released in a swap for five Taliban prisoners. Some question whether soldiers died as part of efforts to save him.
“He’s a deserter, in every sense of the word,” said Evan Buetow, Bergdahl’s former Army team leader, angered to see him heralded as a hero. “That’s exactly the opposite of what he is.”
Now, as Bergdahl prepares to head home, everyday Americans are left asking: Is he a victim? A traitor? Are we meant to empathize or admonish?
Bergdahl grew up with parents and older sister Sky amid the breathtaking peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. The kids were homeschooled, and he received a GED from a local college. His father drove a UPS truck.
The blond, lanky kid grew up, by all accounts, an explorer near Hailey, Idaho, a town of 7,000 that offers a funky alternative to the nearby Sun Valley ski resort. He sparred with the Sun Valley Swords fencing club, danced with the Sun Valley Ballet School, loved his bicycle and sought adventures.
He bounced from job to job, on an Alaskan fishing boat, cleaning guns and stocking targets at the shooting club, crewing on a sailboat trip from South Carolina to California.
From the librarian to the sheriff, everyone seemed to know and admire Bergdahl as he came of age.
“He was good every which way you looked at it,” said the gun club manager, Dick Mandeville.
Bergdahl enlisted at 22 and, with just seven months of military training, was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2009 with the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.
Their mission was to stop the Taliban. Beyond fighting, that meant patrolling villages, gathering intelligence, winning the confidence of locals, training the Afghan National Police. Bergdahl preferred the humanitarian aspect of the job, passing out food and medical supplies.
“He enjoyed helping the locals way more than he enjoyed doing all the ... actual combat side of a deployment,” said platoon medic Josh Cornelison, 25, of Sacramento, California. “He wasn’t so fond of that at all.”
As months passed, Bergdahl began grousing to Buetow, his boss, about their mission. “‘You don’t have to believe in it, but I need your mind clear if something happens,‘” Buetow, 28, of Seattle recalled telling him.
Days before he disappeared, Bergdahl asked Buetow how to get the maximum amount of cash from his paycheck. He also wanted to mail home his computer and books.
“There were things he said that I didn’t think too much of at the time, but when he walked away the lights started going off in all of our heads,” said Buetow.
On June 27, 2009, Bergdahl sent his parents what would be his final email from the field, condemning the military system and the mission in Afghanistan.
“The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies,” he told his parents, who later shared emails with Rolling Stone magazine.
His father responded: “Dear Bowe, In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience.”
Three days later, at 5:30 a.m., a soldier went to wake Bergdahl for guard duty. Their platoon was living at an isolated post, a two-acre stretch of a riverbed, surrounded by wire. Bergdahl slept in a one-man pup tent. On this morning, his body armor and weapon were there. But Bergdahl was gone.
“Hey, is Bergdahl up there?” someone called. He wasn’t.
A frantic search was launched through bunkers, latrines, vehicles, even Afghan National Police posts. Within a day a radio operator intercepted Afghans chatting about a new bargaining chip.
“I think he is a big shot,” says one in a translated transcript posted on the whistleblower group WikiLeaks’ website.
In another, an Afghan said an American was looking for someone who could speak English, and wanted to talk to the Taliban. Analysts believed he was being held by the Haqqani network, an insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban.
Within weeks, he public got its first glimpse of the missing soldier on a video posted by the Taliban. Asked how he was doing, Bergdahl quaked.
“Well I’m scared, scared I won’t be able to go home.”
Back in Hailey, Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, had known of his capture. Now it was public. Yellow ribbons were tied. Candles lit. A “Get Bowe Back” sign was hung in the local coffeehouse window, while Bob and Jani chained their front gate, attaching their own small sign: “No visitors.”
His father stopped shaving and started studying Pashto and Arabic to immerse himself in Afghan culture, to feel a connection with his son.
In Afghanistan, the search continued as anger grew among the comrades who questioned why Bergdahl had left.
“Yes, we resented it. We resented him. And we were upset with the fact that we’re looking for this guy who we knew walked away,” said Buetow.
The public knew little of the circumstances of the disappearance. On the record, the story was only that Bergdahl had strayed from base.
A Pentagon investigation concluded in 2010 that the evidence was “incontrovertible” that Bergdahl indeed walked away from his unit, but did not accuse him of desertion, a former Pentagon official who read the report told The Associated Press.
The Taliban repeatedly offered to swap Bergdahl for Afghan prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the proposed deal sat in limbo for years. Then talks renewed after a video surfaced in December showing Bergdahl in what officials described as poor health.
On May 31, he was free.
Bergdahl, 28, has yet to appear in public or, even, speak to his parents, officials say. At a news conference in Idaho, Bob Bergdahl said he and his wife would have to ease into rebuilding a relationship with their son.
“Bowe has been gone so long it’s going to be very difficult to come back,” he said.
Bergdahl remains at a U.S. military hospital in Germany, working his way through the early stages of a reintegration that’s going to be complicated by growing outrage. A new investigation that is expected to examine the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance has not yet begun.
In Hailey, joy quickly turned to bafflement as townspeople faced an onslaught of hate mail and angry phone calls. A planned welcome-home party was cancelled. “It’s like a modern day lynching,” said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahls.
From Facebook and Twitter to a petition calling for a court martial, Bergdahl’s been called a traitor and worse, and former platoon mates say he should be held to answer for walking away. Gerald Sutton served with Bergdahl and considered him a friend. Now, he wants to see him tried for desertion.
“Personally, I’d like to be able to talk to the guy and ask him why he did this,” he said, “because that’s the ultimate question.”
Associated Press reporters Meghan Barr in New York, Brian Skoloff in Hailey, Idaho, Mike Householder in Detroit, Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho, and Deb Riechmann in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.