Supporters Cling to Hope for Release of POW Held by Taliban

Image: Supporters Cling to Hope for Release of POW Held by Taliban

Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 11:09 AM

By Andrea Billups

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As U.S. military forces draw down and prepare to leave Afghanistan, support for the only prisoner of war taken in the conflict has taken on new urgency, with billboards placed around the United States and social media shining a light on his cause.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho, went missing in June 2009 in Afghanistan's Paktika province, and efforts to secure his release from the Taliban have been ongoing. The United States is juggling a fine line between not negotiating with terrorists and bringing back its soldier.

Bergdahl's family last year received a letter from him that was delivered through the Red Cross, but since that time they have heard nothing more directly, their spokesman, Col. Tim Marsano, told Newsmax.

"There is nothing new to report. I wish I had some good news at this point but sadly, his parents are holding on tight until the day that he comes home," said Marsano, a public affairs officer for the Idaho Army National Guard who has helped the family respond to media requests for nearly five years.

In December, Taliban forces produced a "proof of life" video that was seen by the Defense Department but not released publicly. It showed Bowe, now 27, in what was described as poor health, CNN reported.

"Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been gone far too long, and we continue to call for and work toward his safe and immediate release," a Pentagon spokesman told CNN in January after news of the video came to light.

"We cannot discuss all the details of our efforts, but there should be no doubt that on a daily basis — using our military, intelligence, and diplomatic tools — we work to see Sgt. Bergdahl returned home safely," the spokesman told CNN.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have stepped up efforts in recent months to urge full attention on Bowe's release as officials pondered but then rejected trading insurgents imprisoned at Guantanamo for him.

Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch in January called on national security leaders to make Bergdahl's case a higher priority.

"I have a constituent, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who's being held captive," Risch said. "It's impossible to sit here and convey to you what this family is going through.

"Without getting into the classified material or saying something unintentionally that would impact his safety, I think we'd go a long ways to helping his family have some peace if you would reiterate publicly, as you have to me privately, about what a high area of concern this is for the United States government, to return Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to us personally."

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, responding to Risch's concerns, gave assurances that efforts were continuing.

"I would tell you that every soldier that we have on the battlefield that is in a situation like that becomes our No. 1 priority. There are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, dedicated resources to doing everything we can to bring him home safe and sound," Flynn said at a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Risch was joined in his call to intensify the search for Bergdahl by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who in January called on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to redouble government efforts.

"This June will mark five years since Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban. After so long in captivity, DoD must redouble its efforts to find Sgt. Bergdahl and return him safely to his family," Ayotte said in a letter to Hagel.

"Our men and women in uniform must know that if they are captured by the enemy, our nation will not rest until they are rescued," Ayotte wrote.

Supporters held out some hope earlier this year when a report in The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, noted that negotiations with the Taliban about a release strategy had resumed.

Bowe's parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, even released a statement on Feb. 18 expressing hope that negotiations were moving ahead.

"Today's news indicates there are renewed efforts to use diplomacy to recover our family's son, grandson and brother, Bowe Bergdahl," the Bergdahl family said. "We welcome this development and we applaud the unity of purpose and resolve at the White House and the other U.S. government agencies involved. We are cautiously optimistic these discussions will lead to the safe return of our son after more than four and a half years in captivity."

Jay Carney, a White House spokesman, would not confirm the reports.

"Clearly, if negotiations do resume at some point, then we will want to talk with the Taliban about the safe return of Sgt. Bergdahl," Carney said. "He has been gone far too long and we continue to call for and work toward his safe and immediate release."

Bergdahl supporters have turned to social media to create awareness of his plight and to update any news about his case. Followers can view their posts on Twitter @waitingforbowe and on Facebook at facebook.com/supportbowe, as well as a website, supportbowe.org.

They may also sign a petition urging President Barack Obama to seek Bergdahl's freedom.

Outdoor advertising companies have donated space for as many as 200 billboards around the country, and Bergdahl's supporters continue to raise money for their efforts.

Supporters wrote of the campaign: "We are raising awareness for our only known prisoner of war in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. We have unfinished business in Afghanistan as the drawdown of troops start. We must ensure that we do not forget nor leave Bowe on the battlefield."

As time has passed, some have pointed to evidence that Bergdahl was disenchanted with his duties in Afghanistan and unhappy with his deployment. Rolling Stone magazine in June 2012 published what it said were emails from the soldier to his family that suggested that he had possibly left his unit and fallen into enemy hands as he walked away.

The story linked to a video released by the Taliban in April 2010 where Bergdahl, wearing a beard along with an Army jacket and camouflage pants, begged to be let go.

He talked about his family and asked to be able to return home.

"I miss them. I love them. I pray to God to see them again," Bergdahl said emotionally.

"Let me go. Get me to be released because this war isn't worth the waste of human life that has cost both Afghanistan and the U.S., the amount of life that is wasted in prisons, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, all those places we are keeping prisoners," he pleaded. "I'm a prisoner. I want to go home. The men, Afghan men who are in our prisons, they want to go home."

He added: "The pain in my heart to see my family again doesn't get any smaller."

The video showed Bergdahl in good shape at that time and noted that he was fit and given the freedom to exercise. It ended with a statement from what is captioned as Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, who called for a prisoner exchange.

A later video, among four released thus far during his capture, showed Bergdahl dressed in the native apparel of his captors and noted his fears that he would never come home.


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