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From prayers to fury: The journey of Bowe Bergdahl

Sunday - 6/8/2014, 10:06am  ET

FILE - In this Saturday, May 31, 2014 image made from video obtained from the Voice Of Jihad website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Taliban member looks at a helicopter carrying U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl taking off in eastern Afghanistan. On Wednesday, June 4, 2014, the Taliban released the video showing the handover of Bergdahl to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad)

MARTHA MENDOZA
AP National Writer

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.

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