The Berdaghl family made its home in a remote, wind-whipped Idaho valley to keep the world at a certain distance. But two outside forces – the Taliban and US politics – crashed into the idyll.
It says a lot about Bob Bergdahl, 54, and the son he raised that of the two, he appears to have handled the Taliban better.
The ponytail and straggly beard, the phrases in Arabic and Pashto, the refusal to look or sound like a conventional dad, the theories about Bowe's alleged desertion – all have fuelled the clamour, prompting many to ask: just who are the Bergdahls?
Interviews with friends, neighbours and colleagues in the valley and in Hailey, the nearest town, paint a nuanced portrait of a family that on one hand is sporty, Christian and all-American, fond of horses, hunting, chocolate muffins and Jimmy Fallon; and on the other bookish, private and iconoclastic, carving an individualistic trail in its own private Idaho. That lifestyle bred idealism – and, arguably, naivety.
“Bob almost reads and thinks too much,” said Lee Ann Ferris, a neighbour. “You'd ask him a question and, whoah, what an answer you'd get.”
Susan Martin, a close family friend who employed Bowe at her coffee shop, said he inherited his father's looks and passion for books and going his own way.
“I called Bowe the mystery elf. He was always out doing things, helping people,” she said. Bowe's father, Martin said, had an “old hippie soul”.
The story of how father and son came to animate the drama engulfing President Barack Obama – he has been accused of breaking the law and endangering US lives by trading five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl without giving Congress the 30 days notice required by law – is rooted in a pioneering, individualistic spirit.
In California in the late 1970s, Bob was a young champion cyclist, tipped for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A US boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ended that dream – an ironic twist given the country's later impact on his life.
Bergdahl moved to Idaho to become a carpenter; he was attracted by the landscape and the opportunity to work outdoors, said friends. He married Jani, a devout Presbyterian who liked horses and biking. Bergdahl, a Catholic, switched to his wife's church, which they attended regularly, and built their wooden bungalow in a rugged strip of alfalfa crops wedged between bare hills.
After the arrival of a daughter, Sky, and then Bowe, Bergdahl took a job delivering parcels for UPS, a job he kept for 28 years.
“He knows more about the people in this town than anyone else,” smiled Chip Deffe, a bike store owner who hired Bergdahl as a mechanic after he retired from UPS.Bob Bergdahl speaks at a press conference in Boise, Idaho last Sunday. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The Bergdahls schooled their children at home. There was no TV, but there were many books – to this day the house is filled with mostly non-fiction volumes including tracts on history, religion, science and athletics, said Alan Beserra, a friend and regular visitor.
When not working the older Bergdahl was out camping, chopping wood or hunting elk and deer with a bow. Bowe was equally active but often did his own thing – making 30-mile treks and taking up karate, paragliding, fencing and ballet. There are multiple testimonies to his desire to help others: shovelling snow, doing errands, teaching.
“He was a very good dancer, muscular and flexible. The girls trusted him when he was doing lifts,” said Sherry Horton, his ballet teacher, who shared a house with him at one point.
Bowe had friends and a girlfriend but could be socially awkward, Horton said. “Girls liked him but he'd miss the cues. He was observant, quiet, but would come out with the best one-liner of the night.”
He abandoned a plan to join the French Foreign Legion because it would mean giving up American citizenship, according to friends, so instead he signed up for the US infantry.
“He wanted to serve and to help people,” said Horton. “I thought the army would be a good fit.”
It wasn't. Bergdahl’s deployment to Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, as the world now knows, ended in disaster. Instead of helping Afghans, the sensitive bookworm found himself in a flailing counter-insurgency. Former platoon comrades said he was a loner who lost faith in the mission and the US.
In June 2009 Bowe left his base, in circumstances which remain unclear, and fell into Taliban hands.
After recovering from the shock, his father, 7,000 miles away in Idaho, did three things: bought a TV to follow the news; immersed himself in online study of US foreign policy, Afghan culture, negotiation psychology and anything related to the crisis; and started growing a beard.
The study expanded to Arabic and Pashto and the beard – intended to express solidarity with his son and project the image of a tribal elder – gradually transformed his appearance.
Marathon sessions on the computer and phone became all-consuming. “Bob and Jani basically were prisoners too,” said Ferris. At Jani's prodding Bob resumed biking, ending excursions with apple strudel or chocolate muffins, and he discovered ABC's Jimmy Kimmel. But these were fleeting interludes in his efforts to understand and sway his son's captors.
There were, in fact, some parallels: a former endurance athlete who thrived in Idaho's elemental climate and terrain, Bob Bergdahl could relate to Taliban grit in a similar environment. He also vehemently opposed the US mission in Afghanistan and detentions in Guantánamo Bay.
“I think this is the darkening of the American soul,” he told the Guardian, in the run-up to Bowe's release.
Whether Bergdahl's outreach to the Taliban helped the negotiations remains unclear. There is little doubt, however, that some of his public relations efforts backfired in the US.
A 2012 Rolling Stone article included emails from Bowe to his father, shortly before his capture, railing at the US and hinting at desertion. Bob had confided in the journalist, Michael Hastings, and almost certainly provided the emails not realising the damage they would inflict, said one family friend.
The stakes were higher last Saturday, when Bergdahl and his wife appeared alongside President Obama for what was supposed to be a triumphant, joyful announcement of Bowe's release.
Any White House worries about their guest's appearance and what he would say were weighed against the emotional power of tearful, grateful parents emerging from a horrific ordeal.
Republicans, however, complained that Congress was not given 30 days notice of the freeing of the Taliban detainees, as required by law, and that the militants could endanger American lives despite a condition of the deal obliging them to remain in Qatar under supervision for a year.
Then some of Bowe's former comrades came forward, accusing him of betrayal, desertion and costing the lives of soldiers who searched for him. They depicted an eccentric, selfish loner.Jani and Bob Bergdahl with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Amid the brewing storm, in the Rose Garden alongside the president and the next day at another press conference in Boise, stood Bowe's father, with a straggly beard, speaking the enemy's languages, invoking Allah, and saying things like: “We're so much like Afghanistan.”
Some found his composure and dignity inspiring. Plenty others did not, and the backlash strengthened. Social media erupted in insults, accusations and conspiracy theories. Bill O'Reilly declared on Fox News that Bob Bergdahl “looked like a Muslim”. Protests and threats prompted Hailey to cancel a welcome home celebration for Bowe, who remains at a base in Germany.
Some senior Democrats swelled the Republican clamour that the administration paid too high a price for a rogue soldier. A Time magazine cover articulated the subtext: “Was he worth it?”
Obama publicly held firm, saying he had no regrets. But the Pentagon, having initially signalled that Bowe had suffered enough, indicated he may in fact face a court martial after transferring to a military clinic in Texas – the next stage of his recovery.
Bob and Jani Bergdahl, meanwhile, remain out of sight, apparently hunkered down at home. On Thursday curtains were drawn and several vehicles were parked out front. Horses grazed in the fields. There was no sound except for the wind.
“All this criticism will be water off Bob's back,” said Chip Deffe, his friend and boss at the bicycle store. “He's true to himself.”
In a politicised climate obsessed with image, that can be a problem.