Friday, July 24, 2009

The long haul begins

Hailey crowds turn out for Bergdahl

Express Staff Writer

Sofia Calcagno, age 5, attended a candle light vigil with her family to show support for U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl who is held in captivity in Afghanistan. Photo by David N. Seelig

A candlelight vigil for Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl drew more than 500 people to Hop Porter Park in Hailey Wednesday night. They came to give prayers and support for a soldier who has apparently been held captive by Taliban militants in Afghanistan for three weeks.

While the town is still reeling from the initial shock of Bergdahl's capture, the crowd was told this could be the beginning of a long ordeal for the Army soldier, whose location is still unknown.

The hour-long vigil took place under clear skies below the hills surrounding Bergdahl's hometown. The crowd heard a moving performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" and listened to family friends read statements from Bergdahl's parents, sister and girlfriend, who were not present at the vigil.

"It's amazing how one person's disappearance can bring us all together," said a statement from the soldier's girlfriend, Monica.

The vigil was organized in response to the revelation last weekend that Bergdahl had apparently been captured by the Taliban. Late last Saturday, a 28-minute online video showed a soldier resembling Bergdahl sitting cross-legged in front of a low table and a white sheet while being interviewed.

Although 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 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.

At Wednesday's vigil there were about a dozen TV cameras filming the procession of families, individuals, military veterans and local politicians who came to show support for the Bergdahl family and share thoughts and feelings about his circumstances. Several speakers addressed the crowd from a stage in the park.

Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter choked back tears as he recalled memories of Bergdahl as a young boy with a "contagious smile." He remarked on the yellow ribbons tied to trees all over town in support of Bergdahl's safe return.

"I want to climb a hill with you when you return to look down and see what this town has done for you," Gunter said.

The vigil began with a procession from Zaney's Coffee House on River Street and ended a few blocks away at Hop Porter Park. Families walked together and rode bicycles. They came from Hailey and other cities in Blaine County, including Ketchum and Sun Valley.

The atmosphere was hopeful, but pensive. People came to show support for the Bergdahl family and to reflect on the war in Afghanistan.

Hailey native Joan Davies said she has known Bergdahl since he was very young.

"It perplexes me that he is over there. Bowe probably loves those mountain people. I have three sons and this could have happened to any one of them. I hope to send a message of communication, rather than hostility. I'd like to see 'Three Cups of Tea' happening over there," she said.

Davies was referring to a book about Greg Mortenson's successful mission to establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan after his 1993 failed attempt to climb Pakistan's K2, the world's second highest mountain.

Blaine County Commission Chairman Larry Schoen also attended the vigil.

"We hope and pray that Bowe remains strong," Schoen said. "I saw a sign today that said 'Support Our Troops,' which is great. I would like to also express that we love the Afghan people and wish them the best."

Zaney's owner Sue Martin read a letter written by Bowe's sister, Sky, in which she said, "Our hearts go out to those fighting over there to keep us safe from terror."

Lily Flores, a grandmother from El Salvador, attended the vigil with another grandmother from Mexico. She said she lost a nephew in her country's 15-year-long civil war.

"We are praying for America," Flores said.

A message of guarded optimism was delivered by 76-year-old retired Navy Capt. Render Crayton as he spoke of the seven years he spent in captivity after being shot down over Vietnam in 1966.

"I know what Bowe is feeling. I now what his family is feeling," Crayton said. "But this could be a long haul."

Crayton said the Taliban will try to use the soldier for propaganda purposes and people should not judge him for what he says or does while in captivity.

"Take it all with a grain of salt," he said.

Crayton told the crowd to "keep pressure on your congressmen and senators" for Bowe's release.

"After four years of captivity, the U.S citizens got behind us and our condition improved. I think this had a lot to do with getting us home safely."

A letter written by Bergdahl's parents and read by Gunter's wife, Gloria, expressed gratitude for the outpouring of local support for their son.

"We are running a marathon now. The Baldy hill climb is over," they wrote.

Tony Evans:

Send a message to the Bergdahls

Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling has offered his personal e-mail address to those who want to send a message to the Bergdahl family about their son Bowe, now apparently a prisoner in Afghanistan. To get a message to them, write to

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