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Idaho town holds out hope for captured GI

Bergdahl
Associated Press
Calvin Miller, right, and Taylor Heitzman look at a POW-MIA flag installed in support of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Hailey, Idaho.

– The yellow ribbons, some tattered, some faded, can be seen long before Idaho 75 spills into Hailey, Idaho – home to America’s only prisoner of war in its conflict with Afghanistan.

They hang from roadside utility poles and in front of homes near the one where Bowe Bergdahl grew up. They adorn virtually every tree and light post on Main Street, where signs in shop windows issue pleas to “Bring Bowe Home.”

The ribbons may be the most visible sign that the people of Hailey have not forgotten the Army sergeant who, four years ago June 30, disappeared from his base in southeastern Afghanistan and was taken captive by the Taliban.

But there are other reminders, too: The Norway maple trees– one for each year Bergdahl has been held – planted in the local park. Even Bergdahl’s father, once the town’s clean-shaven UPS deliveryman, has grown a long beard, a personal monument to his son’s plight, not likely to be shorn until he is freed.

The Afghan war, and the taking of this POW, may have long faded from the minds of most Americans. But for this community in the shadow of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, Bowe Bergdahl and his family’s fight to free him are “omnipresent,” said local Wesley Deklotz.

And now, for the first time in a long time, this place has reason to hope that the 27-year-old soldier could soon be home.

On Thursday, the Taliban proposed a deal in which they would free Bergdahl in exchange for five of their most senior operatives at Guantanamo Bay. The proposition came just days ahead of possible talks between a U.S. delegation and Taliban members in Qatar.

And while the idea of a swap has been raised previously, the news electrified Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, who see it as a far more serious sign that the Taliban is willing to let their son go.

“They are very hopeful and very positive that this is a huge step in the right direction,” said friend Donna Thibedeau-Eddy, who was with the Bergdahls at their home outside of Hailey when they got the news.

Only weeks ago, the couple received the first, handwritten letter from their son since his capture, channeled through the International Committee of the Red Cross. That, along with this latest revelation, has boosted their optimism, Thibedeau-Eddy said.

One reason the community has remained focused on Bergdahl’s return is the steady, unwavering faith of his parents, said preschool teacher Betsy Castle as she supervised a group of children playing on the swings at Hailey’s Hop Porter Park, near the place where Bergdahl’s maple trees are planted.

“His parents have kept hope, and that’s just rippled out into the community,” said Castle, who didn’t know Bergdahl. “There’s also something about him being captured that has kept our minds focused on what’s going on in Afghanistan.

“It’s brought it home.”

Today, the park will serve as the venue for a rally and fun-run in Bergdahl’s honor that organizers predict will attract as many as 1,000 motorcycle-riding POW-MIA activists.

The event, called “Bring Bowe Back,” had been planned before Thursday’s news, a community affair meant to honor an absent, but not forgotten, member.

Stefanie O’Neill, a Hailey mother who is one of the organizers of the event, said the four maples planted to commemorate Bergdahl’s years in captivity will get permanent yellow ribbons at today’s ceremony – the kind that never fade.

Still, she hopes the next event will be a homecoming celebration, because this Hailey resident has no intention of seeing yet another tree planted marking another year of Bergdahl’s captivity.

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