Friends and family of an Idaho soldier who was captured in Afghanistan prayed for his safe return Sunday, shaken by the image of the frightened young private in a Taliban video posted online.
Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, was serving with an Alaska-based infantry regiment earlier this month when he vanished, just five months after arriving in Afghanistan. He was serving at a base near the border with Pakistan in an area known to be a Taliban stronghold.
Bergdahl is from Hailey, a town of about 7,000 people in central Idaho where he worked as a barista and was active in ballet. A sign that hangs in the window of Zaney's River Street Coffee House says "Get Bowe Back," and a message inside asks customers to "Join all of us at Zaney's holding light for our friend."
Sue Martin, owner of the coffee shop, said she knew Bergdahl as a free-spirited young man with blond hair who rode his bicycle everywhere in town and was keen to learn as much as he could about the world.
"He joined the ballet. Then he joined the Army," Martin said in an interview from a room at Zaney's, which has become an impromptu meeting place for friends, acquaintances and the media since the Taliban video was shown around the world. "People have been calling and asking what they could bring to show their support."
Bergdahl's family issued a statement asking people to keep the soldier in their thoughts and prayers, but told The Associated Press they were asking that the media respect their privacy.
Neighbors and others in the community have known for weeks that Bergdahl had been captured, but said the family urged them not to talk about the kidnapping out of fear that publicity would compromise his safety. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter told the AP that he had been working to keep the soldier's name quiet until it was officially released.
In the video posted Saturday on a Web site pointed out by the Taliban, Bergdahl says his name and his hometown. The Pentagon confirmed his identity Sunday.
"We hope and pray for our son's safe return to his comrades and then to our family, and we appreciate all the support and expressions of sympathy shown to us by our family members, our friends and others across the nation," Bob Bergdahl, the soldier's father, said in a statement issued through the Department of Defense.
The family, described by neighbors as deeply private, lives six miles west of Hailey on a remote gravel county road. The humble home has a metal roof and several outbuildings, and vehicles parked in front. The family has chained and locked the front gate, and a small cardboard sign says: "No visitors."
Neighbors are abiding by the family's wishes not to comment on the record about Bergdahl's capture, but described the 23-year-old as an "adventurous" soul who was educated at home, danced ballet and took part in a sport fencing club, the Sun Valley Swords.
One of the directors of the Sun Valley Ballet School in Ketchum said Bergdahl performed with the group for four or five years until about 2008.
"He's athletic," Jill Brennan said. "He just had a knack for it. He's a wonderful young man."
U.S. condemns video
In the 28-minute video, Bergdahl said he was "scared I won't be able to go home." He said he was lagging behind a patrol when he was captured, which conflicts with earlier military accounts that indicated he walked off the base with three Afghans.
It wasn't clear who initially captured Bergdahl, but the U.S. command in Afghanistan said he was being held by the Taliban and condemned the video as a violation of international law.
"I'm glad to see he appears unharmed, but again, this is a Taliban propaganda video," spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker said. "They are exploiting the soldier in violation of international law."
With a shaved head and dressed in a nondescript, gray outfit, Bergdahl was shown eating at one point and sitting cross-legged. He choked up when discussing his family and his hope to marry his girlfriend.
"I have a very, very good family that I love back home in America," Bergdahl said.
The Pentagon identified his hometown as Ketchum, which is about half the size of Hailey and about 12 miles north. His family says he grew up in Blaine County, closer to Hailey.
Hailey is a mix of a working-class community and resort town, just down the road from upscale Sun Valley, a ski resort that's home to celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks and Sen. John Kerry. Bruce Willis maintains a vacation home in the area and owns local businesses.
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 was trained in Fort Benning, Ga., said Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen, spokesman for Fort Richardson. Bergdahl reported for duty in Alaska in October, and deployed to Afghanistan in February.
No conditions set for release
In the video, Bergdahl said the date was July 14; it's clear the video was made no earlier because Bergdahl repeated an exaggerated Taliban claim about a Ukrainian helicopter that was shot down that day.
He was interviewed in English and asked his views on the war, which he called extremely hard; his desire to learn more about Islam; and the morale of American soldiers, which he said was low. He was prompted by his interrogators to give a message to the American people.
"Please, please bring us home so that we can be back where we belong and not over here, wasting our time and our lives and our precious life that we could be using back in our own country," he said.
The circumstances of Bergdahl's capture weren't clear.
On July 2, two U.S. officials told the AP the soldier had "just walked off" his base with three Afghans after his shift. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
On July 6, the Taliban claimed on their Web site that five days earlier a "drunken American soldier had come out of his garrison" and was captured by mujahedeen.
Details of such incidents are routinely held very tightly by the military as it works to retrieve a missing or captured soldier without giving away any information to captors.
Afghans in contact with the Taliban told the AP that the soldier was held by a Taliban group led by a commander called Maulvi Sangin. They said the fighters decided to move him north into Taliban-controlled areas of Ghazni province.
The Afghans spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest or reprisal. It was impossible to independently confirm their information.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said the militants holding the soldier haven't yet set any conditions for his release.