About 2,000 people gathered Saturday at Hop Porter Park in Hailey to call for the release of captured Hailey-area Army soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
At the event, the roar of hundreds of motorcycles was mixed with a heartfelt plea from the Bergdahl family for an end to the 12-year-long war in Afghanistan.
The crowd included leading politicians, local supporters, military veterans and members of prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action groups. The rally was held the same day that talks were scheduled to begin in Qatar between the Taliban and U.S. leaders to discuss bringing an end to the war.
The Taliban offered last week to free Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban captives held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
Bergdhal’s father, Bob Bergdahl, called out to his son’s captors in their Pashtun language.
“My son is a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Where is your office in Qatar? Where is your office in Doha? Do you have the information? Please tell me,” he said.
To his son, Bob Bergdahl said, “You are part of the peace process, part of ending the Afghan War, as we have known for some time. Have faith, do good work, continue to tell the truth, but above all have the patience that can only come from God. We are being tested and God tests those who he knows can persevere.”
Bergdahl was captured on June 30, 2009, in the Paktika Province of Afghanistan. He is the only known U.S. military prisoner of war. An interview that Bob Bergdahl gave to Rolling Stone magazine last year indicated that his son had been deeply troubled by the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan.
“He [Bowe] honestly believed that he could help the people of Afghanistan,” Bob Bergdahl told the crowd Saturday. “After traveling the world, he thought this was his role to play. I will defend his character until the day I die.”
Bob Bergdahl dedicated four trees in the park where his son played as a toddler, one for each year he has been held captive.
“You don’t plant trees for yourself,” he said. “You plant them for posterity. What we as Americans need to understand about the Afghan War is that they [Afghans] have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to worry about and to think about and to care for also.”
He mentioned Higher Ground of Sun Valley, a veterans recreational therapy program, and the Afghan Tree Project, a group that aims to replace trees in Afghanistan lost through decades of war and to deliver fruit trees to families in urban areas.
“Afghans need trees, just like we need trees,” Bob Bergdahl said.
The possibility of a prisoner exchange to free Bergdahl has been raised several times over the past four years, but began in earnest about 16 months ago when private talks between the United States and the Taliban began. Those talks led to the Taliban opening a political office last week in Doha, Qatar, a modern city on the Persian Gulf.
Bob Bergdahl said it was “no coincidence” that the rally to free his son took place on the same day that peace talks between the United States and the Taliban were set to begin. He rode into town in a “missing man” formation on his son’s 1978 motorcycle, alongside hundreds of bikers and veterans from as far away as Illinois.
Biker groups were made popular by returning U.S. military veterans after World War II and have since been associated with veterans’ causes, including POW/MIA groups, said a leader of the Gold Wing Road Riders Association of Twin Falls.
Other biker groups came from Nevada, California and Utah.
Former U.S. Marine sniper Robert Smith said he came to Hailey from Twin Falls to support the Bergdahl family.
“We want to wake up Washington, D.C.,” said Smith. “Bowe is a member of our VFW 2136 in Twin Falls.”
Smith said he sees three options that the United States could take to bring Bergdahl home—through negotiations, a prisoner exchange or a special operations action.
“It would be best to see a peaceful resolution,” Smith said.
Idaho state Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said in an interview before speaking at the gathering that she was encouraged to see so many people show up in support of the Bergdahl family.
Stennett said that with so much media attention at home and abroad, she is hopeful for Bergdahl’s release.
“This community has not forgotten the Bergdahl family,” Stennett said. “This could make the Department of Defense and the U.S. Congress pay attention. This will not go away.”
Other speakers on Saturday included Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter, Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle and County Commissioner Larry Schoen.
The talks in Doha—aimed at reconciling the Taliban with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai—faltered last week, but were reported by the International Herald Tribune to be back on track Tuesday, thanks to a Qatari mediator.
CNN reported that President Barack Obama said on June 19 in Berlin that he had anticipated there were going to be some “areas of friction” during the beginning of the peace talks.
“We don’t expect that it will be easy,” Obama told reporters. “But we do think [that] ultimately we’re going to need to see Afghans talking to Afghans about how they can move forward and end the cycle of violence so they can start actually building their country.”