Captive of the Taliban: In the Hometown of an American Prisoner of War

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Bob and Jani Bergdahl, parents of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, in Hailey, Idaho. The family says Bowe was part of secret, but stalled, negotiations for a prisoner exchange between the Obama Administration and the Taliban

Afghanistan and America merge where Hailey, Idaho, begins to disappear into the woods, two blocks off Main Street, where Zaney's River Street Coffee House sits behind a yard of bright yellow flowers. The one-story red wooden building is the heart of the Support Bowe Bergdahl movement. Bergdahl, 26, is a native son, having grown up by a dirt road that winds through a narrow river valley a few miles outside of town. He is one of the proud contributions of Hailey (pop. 8,000) to the U.S. military. The soldier has also been a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan since late June 2009. He is America's only current prisoner of war. He is the emotional vacuum in the heart of Hailey, with Zaney's as ground zero for meetings, rallies and yellow ribbons for Bergdahl. Says Lee Ann Ferris, a local interior decorator: "The whole town has been affected. He's like our kid too." She says she imagines what must be going through his mind in faraway Afghanistan. "Every day he must be thinking about this little canyon, dreaming about it ... probably what keeps him going," she says.

Bergdahl's father Bob has driven the local UPS route, which includes the ski resort of Sun Valley, for 28 years. "Long enough to know everyone," says Sue Martin, the family friend who owns Zaney's. A lean, athletic man in his early 50s, he has piercing blue eyes staring out of a head of sandy brown hair and the beard that he has been growing since he got news of his son's capture. He could pass for a Taliban — in more ways than meet the eye. He says he is trying to learn Pashto and Urdu, the predominant languages along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.

Bob Bergdahl was on his route on July 1, 2009, when he received word over UPS radio that he needed to return immediately to local headquarters. He arrived about 7 p.m. to see his wife Jani and uniformed Army officers standing in the company's gravel lot. That's when he received the devastating news. Jani Bergdahl would later tell her friend Sue Martin that it was going to take a lot of strength to get through the ordeal. As for Bob, says Martin, it was clear that "he was not going to succumb to the emotions of it as much as he's going to participate in the resolution."

It has been a three-year roller coaster of news, hope and disappointment. There would be video evidence of Bowe's captivity and news of his abortive escape attempts. Bob would scour open-source websites and chat rooms looking for any information, trying to understand the culture of his captors. Tantalizing messages would reportedly creep out of the Taliban by way of the Internet, and then, suddenly, the family's expectations would be dashed. All the while, Bob was kept updated on what was known of Bowe's situation by some of the highest-ranking Army generals in Washington. Pious Presbyterians, the Bergdahls kept faith in what the government told them. And then, according to later press reports, a breakthrough seemed to be taking place: unprecedented direct negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, allegedly about a swap of insurgent prisoners for Bowe. It was all hush-hush, but in retrospect, Martin says, "There must have been some good news. I saw Bob, and it seemed like he could smile." She adds, "There was a sense of optimism that 'We've done this. It's going to happen.' "

It did not. The supposed negotiations fell through in March 2012. The U.S. government refuses to discuss the issue. There were reports that the Bergdahls were frustrated and were going to publicize their son's plight — a move supposedly counseled against by the Pentagon. And indeed, Bob has broken his silence, but not in an angry way. "We do not want the American people to think we are dissatisfied with the way our government has proceeded," he tells TIME. "This isn't just about our son. This is about national policy."

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