Bring Our Son Home

The parents of America's only missing soldier in Afghanistan almost got him back from the Taliban. What went wrong?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

From their home in Idaho, Bob and Jani Bergdahl have been working for three years to secure their son Bowe's release

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The cultural code of hospitality extended to captives appears--deliberately--evident in the first video, which became public in July 2009. While the off-camera interrogator asks questions of Bergdahl in accented but fairly fluent English, the shaved-headed soldier mops up a plate of stew with pieces of bread. He finishes his meal with a glass mug of the pale yellow tea popular among the Pashtun population.

The worst part of being a captive, say Van Dyk and British journalist Sean Langan, who was held hostage by the Haqqanis for four months in 2008, is the state of perpetual fear. "No matter how nice they are--and usually they are--you know that they could kill you at any minute," says Langan. "That can break a person over time."

In a third video, released in April 2010, Bergdahl sports a thick beard and wears an army sweatshirt that looks fresh out of the package. Bergdahl says he is being treated well and is allowed to exercise. His captors tell TIME that by that stage he had started learning basic Pashtu, "words such as bread, water, How are you?, I am fine, Who are you?" Bergdahl, who was raised a devout Presbyterian, even started thinking about converting to Islam, says one commander. Suspicious at first, they asked if it was out of fear or frustration that he wanted to convert. "He told us, 'Your way of life has impressed me, and I want to live like you.'"

And then, last fall, Bowe Bergdahl escaped.

Learning Pashtu in Idaho

Back in Hailey, Bob Bergdahl was also learning Pashtu. He scoured websites and militant chat rooms looking for information. He kept delivering packages for UPS, as familiar and warm a face around Hailey as ever, but getting Bowe back had become his mission in life. He read up on the border region's history and politics and culture, information that he then used in his own video directed at Bowe's captors.

"Idaho is so much like Afghanistan," Bob Bergdahl says, speaking of the wild mountainous environment that both places share and that Bowe loved. "The similarities will help him. We hope that will be what sustains him."

Friends and neighbors in Hailey say the videos of Bowe have been both comforting and torturous to the Bergdahl family. They prove that Bowe is alive, but they are also a visceral reminder of just how far away he is. Sherry Horton, one of Bowe's closest friends, says she takes comfort in seeing Bowe's beard grow. "It's nice to look and to be able to see in the different videos the beard growth that tells you the passage of time." Bob Bergdahl has started growing his own beard in solidarity. "His faith seems to be intact," says Bergdahl of his son. "In his videos, he's mentioned his faith in God, and that means a lot to us. We think the Taliban and these Pashtun people can identify with that. And I hope they can respect him for that. I hope they continue to treat him humanely."

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