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Taking The Bergdahl News Personally

Jani and Bob Bergdahl

Jani and Bob Bergdahl speak to the media during a news conference June 1 in Boise, Idaho. AP photo/Otto Kitsinger

It’s a little surreal watching events unfold over the return of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, America’s only Afghanistan war POW. For four years and 10 months, my Honda Pilot wore a bumper sticker that read “Standing with Bowe.” In a bittersweet moment yesterday, my husband Jerry Coffee scraped off the faded declaration. We are thrilled that Bowe, a U.S. soldier, is out of Taliban hands, but celebration has turned to sober contemplation.

In July 2009, Jerry and I met Bergdahl’s parents in their hometown of Hailey, Idaho, less than a month after their son, then-Pfc. Bergdahl, was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a generous act of compassion, our friend and former Marine, also from Hailey, flew Jerry and me to Hailey to meet with his friends, Jani and Bob. Still in shock over their son’s circumstance, these parents, our friend thought, could benefit greatly from wisdom and experience of Jerry, a seven-year POW in North Vietnam.

We first attended a Presbyterian church service with Jani and Bob, Bowe’s sister Sky and her husband, Navy Lt. Michael Albrecht, an F-18 Super Hornet pilot, and their three little blond-haired children. Over lunch, Bob and Jani frankly shared what they did and didn’t know, and asked Jerry questions. They spoke humbly and openly about their faith, their well-founded fears for Bowe — and (Jani emphatically added) the other soldiers — and their dismay about the scarcity of information. At that point, the Army was remiss in caring for the parents of a captured soldier. Jerry offered good advice: Have faith in your son until you hear what happened in his own words; don’t believe propaganda statements he will likely make under duress; maintain hope, and pray.

Two years later, in August 2011, while visiting friends in Hailey, we reunited with Jani and Bob. Over dinner, it was obvious their faith was still firm, but their nerves were beginning to fray over our government’s lack of urgency to get Bowe back. Bob’s red beard to show solidarity with his son was growing, and he was clearly frantic to connect to Bowe in some way. His single-minded mission to find common ground with Bowe’s captors had begun: learning the Pashto language, showing interest in Afghan history and sympathy with the Afghans’ plight. He would’ve exchanged himself for Bowe in a heartbeat.

That no soldiers in Bowe’s unit ever spoke publicly about his disappearance was a mystery. But details in a 2012 Rolling Stone magazine story gave rise to the possibility that Bowe willfully left his Army post. Today we know those soldiers were ordered to keep mum until Bowe was freed. Now we hear their accusations of desertion and, from some, the charge that Bowe sought out the Taliban, and that soldiers were killed while searching for him.

The firestorm of media speculation about the Bergdahls has turned irresponsible. Bob’s red-bearded appearance and Pashto message to Bowe in the Rose Garden didn’t endear him, but has some accusing him of colluding with the Taliban. Truth is, the UPS delivery guy and his sweet wife, both devoted parents and grandparents, have done their best in the absence of action by our government for five years in a very political environment.

A former State Department member said on CNN that there is a bigger story to this tragic episode. The killing of Osama bin Laden, the 2012 election, the Pakistani government, drone strikes, mismanagement of the war, international geo-political events and a calculated scheme to close Guantanamo all played a possible role in the length of time Bowe was held and in the trade of five bad Taliban dudes, who will rejoin their “death to America” mission. How could a young Idaho soldier foresee he’d become an international political pawn?

Bowe Bergdahl will have to answer for any alleged acts of desertion — and if proven, face military justice. All the brave servicemen and women of this war who served, have died — perhaps while searching for him — who’ve lost limbs, suffered traumatic brain injuries and live with nightmares of war deserve that justice be served.

I still stand with the Bergdahls. They deserve that, too.

There is far more to this story, and until it all comes out, I’ll reserve judgment on standing with Bowe.

susanpagecoffee@gmail.com

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