HAILEY, Idaho — The tearful mother of the only known U.S. prisoner of war said Saturday she’s feeling “very optimistic” about his eventual release after his Taliban captors offered last week to exchange him for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s mother, Jani Bergdahl, spoke to about 2,000 people gathered in Hailey, his hometown, in a city park where he played as a young boy.
About 400 in the crowd arrived on motorcycles, adorned in leather and patches commemorating U.S. soldiers missing in action.
Bowe Bergdahl, 27, was taken prisoner in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. Jani Bergdahl and his father, Bob Bergdahl, who accompanied the motorcycle procession on his son’s 1978 dirt bike, spoke for a combined 15 minutes about rejuvenated hopes that their son’s now-four-year ordeal will soon end.
“We are feeling very optimistic this week,” his mother said, before addressing her son directly. “Bowe, we love you, we support you and are eagerly awaiting your return home. I love you, my son, as I have from the first moment I heard of you, the never-ending, unconditional love a mother has for her child.”
POW-MIA activists traveled on buses to the event from as far as Elko, Nev.
Many in the crowd said they were Vietnam veterans; some of them supported the proposed prisoner exchange without reservation.
“Give them their guys, and get our guy home,” said David Blunt of Elko, who said he served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam as a medic. “He’s suffered enough.”
Bergdahl is believed to be held in Pakistan, but the Taliban said they would free him in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay.
The militant group’s exchange proposition came just days ahead of possible talks between a U.S. delegation and Taliban members.
Bergdahl’s father, Bob Bergdahl, urged those gathered at Hailey’s Hop Porter Park to remember everyone, regardless of nationality, who had suffered during the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He described his son as “part of the peace process.”
“I wish she was the only mother that was suffering in that way,” Bob Bergdahl said of his wife. “Mothers all over the world are suffering because of this war, and I don’t forget that for even one day.”
He addressed his son’s captors in Pashto, the Afghan language he has learned since Bowe Bergdahl went missing.
Bob Bergdahl, who has grown a beard and wore all black at Saturday’s event, said that while he is physically in Idaho, he’s living vicariously through his son, having set his cellphone to Afghan time in a bid to share his son’s experience in exile as much as he can.
Both parents spoke of Bergdahl as an adventurer, a young man who once helped crew a sailboat through the Panama Canal, disembarked in San Francisco and then rode a bicycle south along the Pacific Ocean to meet family in Santa Barbara, Calif., 350 miles away.
He joined the military at 22 because “he honestly thought he could help the people of Afghanistan,” Bob Bergdahl said.
On June 6, the family said it received its first letter from their son in his handwriting in four years, ferried through the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The circumstances of his capture aren’t completely clear, though U.S. officials on July 2, 2009, said a soldier had been taken after walking off his base after his duty shift. For some of the motorcycle riders who participated Saturday, those details are something to be sifted through after Bergdahl is home.
“He didn’t go over there on his own,” said Randy Danner, a former U.S. Air Force member from Mountain Home, Idaho, who rode to Hailey with a group called the Green Knights. “No matter the circumstances, for our men and women over there who have put themselves in harm’s way, we have a duty to support them in any way we can.”