Wednesday, July 22, 2009

War fears come home

Community rallies for Hailey resident captured in Afghanistan

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling addresses a crowd of national and international media to relay a statement from the family of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who is believed to be captured in Afghanistan. Photo by Willy Cook

World events brought the U.S.-led war on terror—Operation Enduring Freedom—home to Hailey this week. As concerned local residents watched, the peaceful town of Hailey became another American city facing the fears of war.

A 28-minute online video posted Saturday about noon Mountain Time shows a soldier resembling Blaine County resident Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl sitting cross-legged in front of a low table and a white sheet while he is being interviewed. The images in the video have unnerved Bergdahl's hometown. The well-known Hailey son has a standing invitation to return to work as a barista at Zaney's River Street Cafe, owner Sue Miller said.

Miller and her son Seth have opened the cafe as hosts to international media covering the expanding Bergdahl story. The small business has also become the pipeline for information between the Bergdahls and an outpouring of support.

"We've been getting a call about every half an hour," said Seth Martin, who has been managing the phone and the steady pressure of press inquiry.

Calls have come from across the country and abroad, he said.

"The international, national and local request for information has steadily increased," said Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard who has been helping to coordinate communication and hand delivered flowers to the Bergdahl family Tuesday morning in the company of Sue Martin and Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, who did the driving.

"They appreciated the flowers," Marsano said. "The other token is the yellow ribbons that are all around that they saw as they drove through town."

In several brief statements, the family requested privacy during "this very difficult time."

"The family has felt that the media has by and large treated them with a great deal of respect and they are grateful for that," Marsano said.

Though family, friends and the Pentagon deliberately kept Bergdahl's identity secret for nearly three weeks after the BBC reported a U.S. soldier missing July 2, the government was forced to reveal his name over the weekend when the video appeared. Bergdahl's identification tags were displayed in the video, which officials believe was made about July 14.

Bergdahl is a member of 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He entered the Army in June 2008 and went through basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., according to news reports.

During the video interview, Bergdahl is prompted to comment both on his role as a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan and to admonish the U.S. government to bring home the troops.

"Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country," Bergdahl said.

The Pentagon confirmed shortly after the video was released that the young man shown with his head shaved and an emerging beard, wearing plain gray garb, is Bergdahl. He is also shown eating. In the video, Bergdahl becomes emotional during segments of the footage. He says that "being a prisoner is very unnerving" and he fears he might not make it home from his predicament.

Although media reports have attributed the video to the Taliban, Secretary Gates made no mention of that group in his briefing to reporters this week, but did not deny that assertion either.

On July 1, the U.S. Department of Defense listed a soldier as "DUSTWUN (Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown)" on its Web site. Bergdahl's status was changed July 3 to "Missing Captured."

Speculation about how Bergdahl went missing is rampant, causing a strain on people both for and against the war in Hailey.

"Fundamentally, the word on the street is we don't want to say anything that will change what's going on overseas," said Hailey Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Spinelli, himself a former Army intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. He was out with Assistant Director Anna Svidgal on Tuesday morning, helping to tie yellow ribbons around city trees.

"Yellow ribbon sold out here yesterday. We had to drive 45 miles to Jerome to pick up more,"

Addressing questions about how local residents should express themselves about the situation, the two advised people to be cautious.

"Our concern is that any information about Bowe or his family could become harmful." Svidgal said. "We don't know how it can get used."

At a daily news briefing in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Defense Robert Gates condemned Bergdahl's capture and said the military is doing everything in its power to find him.

Likewise, President Barack Obama told "The Today Show" that "we are doing everything we can" to locate him.

In a statement read by Femling late Tuesday afternoon, the Bergdahls said they appreciated the support from near and far.

"From all the news reports our family members have seen over the past few days, it's obvious our president, our governor, our Idaho Congressional delegation members, others around the world and especially our neighbors in Blaine County are keeping Bowe and us in their thoughts and prayers," the statement reads. "We appreciate and take comfort in all the kind words of support we've heard. We'd like to ask that your concern for our son Bowe, also be shared with all of our American service members in harm's way around the world. We are very grateful to all of them."

Matt Furber:

Vigil tonight

The community is set to hold a vigil in support of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl tonight at 7 p.m. The public is welcome to gather at Zaney's River Street Coffee House, at 208 N. River St. in Hailey. The vigil will start at Zaney's and participants will walk or bicycle to Hop Porter Park.

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