Residents of Idaho Town Describe Captured Soldier as Adventurous, Diverse

By Alexi Mostrous
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HAILEY, Idaho, July 21 -- The 23-year-old American soldier had written to his father about surviving a vicious Taliban ambush weeks before the enemy captured him June 30. Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who had deployed to Afghanistan in February, was "upbeat" in his account and credited a new armored vehicle, said Wayne Clayton, a close family friend in this mountain town now adorned with yellow ribbons.

"He was amazed that everyone in the vehicle survived," said Clayton, "and the way it took the bullets. It must have been terrifying for a father to read that, but Bowe was the type to just tell you what was going on."

Now Bergdahl is the young man in a 28-minute Taliban video, pleading in captivity for a chance to see his loved ones again.

July has been the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the conflict began in 2001. Thirty-one Americans have died this month, as the United States has stepped up its effort to rout the Taliban.

Bergdahl's regiment, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, has seen tough fighting; at least five of its members have been killed since February, two in a fierce firefight at their Afghan base on the Fourth of July. But people in Bergdahl's home town said that the paratrooper was a bit of a daredevil and adventurer, always in search of new horizons to explore, and that he was committed to his mission in one of the most rugged and remote parts of Afghanistan.

The Fort Richardson soldiers have been hunkered down in border provinces in southeast Afghanistan, trying to win hearts and minds in a poor place with open sewers, no running water and no electricity. One of the military's goals is to implement a counterinsurgency strategy: cull the Taliban from the general population and offer small changes in daily life, such as health care for pregnant women, that may build confidence in the Afghan government.

"He was really happy with his unit," Clayton said. "He wrote that he liked shooting his assault weapon. His marksmanship is really important to him. He has a range at the back of his house."

Bergdahl, who was educated at home, also has been, in turns, a ballet dancer, a fencer and a voracious reader. Friends say he always wanted to be "part of that warrior world," participating in reenactments of Renaissance sword-fights, being fascinated by weaponry, studying martial arts and working at the Sun Valley Gun Club.

Walt Femling, a family friend and the sheriff of Blaine County, said Bergdahl loved to hear about a trip Femling had taken to Alaska as a young man. "I had gone up there at exactly his age, and he was interested to know what it was like," said Femling, who owns an apartment that Bergdahl rented. "What jobs you could get up there. Logging, fishing. He was an adventurer, I suppose. Always wanted to try new things."

Before enlisting in June last year, Bergdahl had succumbed to "valley fever," what the young locals call the desire to leave Idaho and explore. Bergdahl sailed around the Caribbean, worked on an Alaskan trawler and traveled across Europe. He once rode his bicycle from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, Calif.

He even considered joining the French Foreign Legion, friends said. "He really wanted to travel the world," Clayton said.

Bergdahl was captured under circumstances that remain unclear. Although two U.S. officials said July 2 that he had "just walked off" the base in Paktika province with three Afghans, Bergdahl says in a video released by the Taliban on Saturday that he was captured after falling behind on patrol. It is highly unusual for soldiers to walk off-base in Afghanistan without being accompanied by other soldiers.

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