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America's Last Prisoner of War

Three years ago, a 23-year-old soldier walked off his base in Afghanistan and into the hands of the Taliban. Now he’s a crucial pawn in negotiations to end the war. Will the Pentagon leave a man behind?

Bowe Bergdahl prepares for graduation from basic training near Fort Benning in Georgia.
Courtesy of the Bergdahl Family.
June 7, 2012 8:00 AM ET

The mother and father sit at the kitchen table in their Idaho farmhouse, watching their son on YouTube plead for his life. The Taliban captured 26-year-old Bowe Bergdahl almost three years ago, on June 30th, 2009, and since that day, his parents, Jani and Bob, have had no contact with him. Like the rest of the world, their lone glimpses of Bowe – the only American prisoner of war left in either Iraq or Afghanistan – have come through a series of propaganda videos, filmed while he's been in captivity.

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In the video they're watching now, Bowe doesn't look good. He's emaciated, maybe 30 pounds underweight, his face sunken, his eye sockets like caves. He's wearing a scraggly beard and he's talking funny, with some kind of foreign accent. Jani presses her left hand across her forehead, as if shielding herself from the images onscreen, her eyes filling with tears. Bob, unable to look away, hits play on the MacBook Pro for perhaps the 30th time. Over and over again, he watches as his only son, dressed in a ragged uniform, begs for someone to rescue him.

"Release me, please!" Bowe screams at the camera. "I'm begging you – bring me home!"

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Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl arrived in Afghanistan at the worst possible moment, just as President Barack Obama had ordered the first troop surge in the spring of 2009. Rather than withdraw from a disastrous and increasingly deadly war started by his predecessor, the new commander in chief had decided to escalate the conflict, tripling the number of troops to 100,000 and employing a counterinsurgency strategy that had yet to demonstrate any measurable success. To many on Obama's staff, who had been studying Lessons in Disaster, a book about America's failure in Vietnam, the catastrophe to come seemed almost preordained. "My God," his deputy national security adviser Tom Don­ilon said at the time. "What are we getting this guy into?" Over the next three years, 13,000 Americans would be killed or wounded in Afghanistan – more than during the previous eight years of war under George W. Bush.

Bowe's own tour of duty in Afghanistan mirrored the larger American experience in the war – marked by tragedy, confusion, misplaced idealism, deluded thinking and, perhaps, a moment of insanity. And it is with Bowe that the war will likely come to an end. On May 1st, in a surprise visit to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, President Obama announced that the United States will now pursue "a negotiated peace" with the Taliban. That peace is likely to include a prisoner swap – or a "confidence-building measure," as U.S. officials working on the negotiations call it – that could finally end the longest war in America's history. Bowe is the one prisoner the Taliban have to trade. "It could be a huge win if Obama could bring him home," says a senior administration official familiar with the negotiations. "Especially in an election year, if it's handled properly."

Bowe Robert Bergdahl was born in Sun Valley, Idaho, on March 28th, 1986 – the same day as Lady Gaga, as his parents like to point out. Bob and Jani had moved to Idaho from California after college, building a small, two-­bedroom home on 40 acres of farmland not far from the small town of Hailey, deep in the mountains of Wood River Valley. His father worked construction, his mother odd jobs, living the life of ski bums, nearly off the grid. In 1983, the year Bowe's older sister Sky was born, his parents pulled in $7,000 and paid off the hospital bills for her birth with weekly $20 deposits.

Rather than put their kids in the local school system, Jani and Bob home-schooled Bowe and his sister. Devout Calvinists, they taught the children for six hours a day, instructing them in religious thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. "Ethics and morality would be constant verbiage in our conversations," his father recalls. "Bowe was definitely instilled with truth. He was very philosophical about perceiving ethics."

By the age of five, Bowe had also learned to shoot a .22 rifle and to ride horses. He developed a love for dirt bikes and immersed himself in boy's adventure tales – anything that had to do with sailing and the ocean – as well as cartoons. His favorite was Beetle Bailey, the comic-strip antihero who shambles through life in the Army as a permanent fuck-up.

By the time he was 16, Bowe had grown restless with his home-schooling – and his parents. He began to explore the wider world, and became obsessed with learning how to fence. At a nearby fencing studio, which also offered ballet classes, he was recruited by a beautiful local girl to be a "lifter" – the guy who holds the girl aloft in a ballet sequence. He soon moved in with the girl, whose family owned a tea shop in Ketchum, and made it his second home. The matriarch of the household, Kim Harrison, introduced him to Buddhism and Tarot cards. Bowe repaid his new family by doing construction work on their home. "To me, it was the normal path teenagers take," says Bob. "Like going to college – you get into all this stuff."

At 20, Bowe went even farther afield in search of the kind of boy's adventure that had mesmerized him for years: He decided to join the French Foreign Legion, the infantry force made up of foreigners who want "to start a new life," as the legion's recruiting website puts it. He traveled to Paris and started to learn French, but his application was rejected. "He was absolutely devastated when the French Foreign Legion didn't take him," Bob says. "They just didn't want an American home-schooled in Idaho. They just said no way." Bowe pored over a survival and combat handbook written by a former member of the British special forces, and he gravitated toward the TV show Man vs. Wild, hosted by another legendary British soldier. "This became his role model," his father says. "He is Bear Grylls in his own mind."

Returning home from Europe, Bowe drifted for the next few years, working mainly as a barista at Zaney's, a local coffee shop in Hailey. But he kept dreaming of ways to pursue something bigger. In 2008, he spoke to a family friend who was working as a missionary in Uganda about going over to Africa to teach "self-defense techniques" to villagers being targeted by brutal militias like the Lord's Resistance Army. He and his father even fantasized about the creation of a special ­operations unit to "kill these fucks" in Africa, imagining that "someone needed to run an op with some military people dressed up like U.N. people" to take out warlords in Darfur and Sudan. Before a spot in the friend's missionary program could open up, though, Bowe had decided on a different adventure.

One day that spring, Bowe called his mother. "Mom, I need to talk to you and Dad about something," he said. He stopped by the house that Saturday, when his father was home from work.

"I'm thinking about joining the Army," Bowe told his parents.

"You're thinking about joining?" his father asked. "Or you already signed on the dotted line?"

"Well, yeah," Bowe admitted.

Bowe's mother wished he had enlisted in a different branch, like the Navy, that wouldn't have put him on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan. His father did what he always did with his son's dreams. "I just tried to be supportive," Bob says.

But what Bowe found in the Army, according to his parents, was a "deception" – one that started from the moment he was recruited. Bowe had been enticed to join the Army, they say, with the promise that he would be going overseas to help Afghan villagers rebuild their lives and learn to defend themselves – "the whole COIN thing," says Bob, citing the shorthand for America's strategy of counterinsurgency. "We were given a fictitious picture, an artificially created picture of what we were doing in Afghanistan."

After 16 weeks of training, Bowe graduated from infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia, in the fall of 2008. While others in his training unit – A Company 2-58 – used their weekend passes to hit up strip clubs, Bowe hung out at Barnes & Noble and read books. He was already an expert shot from his days firing his .22 in the mountains of Idaho. When his parents attended the graduation, the drill sergeant told them, "Bowe was good to go when he got here." After completing the course, Bowe was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Fort Richardson, Alaska, not far from Anchorage. He arrived in October 2008.

At first, according to soldiers in his unit, Bowe seemed to embrace Army life. "He showed up, looked like a normal Joe," says former Specialist Jason Fry, who is now studying for a master's in theology. "When he first got to the unit, he was the leadership's pet. He read the Ranger Handbook like no other. Some people resented him for it." Bowe kept to himself, doing physical training on his own. "He never hung out with anyone, always in the background, never wanted to be in front of anything," says Fry. He surrounded himself with piles of books, including Three Cups of Tea, about a humanitarian crusade to educate girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as instructions on Zen meditation and an introductory ethics handbook with writings from Aristotle, Augustine, Kant and Hume.

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