Teri Orr: Our neighbor’s son
June 7, 2014
Up the road a piece, in Hailey, Idaho, a little town outside the resort community of Sun Valley, one of their own was captured five years ago in Afghanistan and held as a prisoner of war by the Taliban. Bowe Bergdahl was taught by his parents, devout Calvinists, in the ways of St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. He was a home-schooled kid, who danced in the local ballet company, read everything he could, was able to survive in the backcountry for days on end and worked as a barista at Zaney’s coffee shop. When he was captured, the town placed yellow ribbons all around, including at Zaney’s to show their support of Bowe and his family. They prayed together each year for his safe return.
There was great joy last week when his parents stood in the Rose Garden at the White House and President Obama announced his rescue. Obama had kept the promise of presidents before him, "we leave no solider behind." And this war, without anyone planting a flag in the sand, is ending now, with a whimper. It was time to bring Bowe home. The president traded prisoners of war we held in Guantanamo Bay for Bowes’ release, just as John McCain was traded by ending the entire war in Vietnam for his release all those years ago.
And for a few hours, it seemed, we all celebrated the safe release of American Sargent Bowe Bergdahl.
But then the haters started hating. The talking heads couldn’t stop themselves from talking nonsense. And politicians, like John McCain, who had criticized the president for not doing more to secure Bowes’ release and just two weeks ago said he would support a trade of prisoners to free him, flipped. Flopped. And the politicians who pushed for a release turned their backs on their president.
Bowes’ parents became targets for how they home schooled their son to how they grieved during his capture. His dad for growing a beard and learning the language his son had learned. Their naive son, who had tried first to join the French Foreign Legion but was rejected, who joined the army with the dream of helping, really helping, the Afghani people rebuild their country.
But Bowe quickly learned what every wartime solider learned since General Sherman proclaimed it so — War is Hell. His unit, as reported years ago by The Guardian, lacked discipline and were a rag-tag, leaderless bunch. In a matter of days vehicles he was riding in suffered multiple IED attacks. A tank he was riding in rolled over and killed a little girl. "Our" tanks, "their" child. Unlike a video game where death has no consequences and earns you points, here death was vivid and messy and searing and painful and shocking and real, very, very real.
And it might have been too much for the good-hearted young man. He might have wandered off for a walk to process the horror of those few days. We do know the army never declared him AWOL. He was captured and displayed as a prize by the Taliban for the next five years where his health, both mental and physical, from videos taken and displayed on YouTube, showed he had obviously deteriorated. He tried to escape repeatedly.
Meanwhile, we have maintained a facility in Guantanamo Bay filled with prisoners of war, we call detainees. It has caused us great harm in the eyes of those who would do us great harm. We try to justify a practice we abhor in other, less-civilized, less-evolved countries. And our enemies hate us for our hypocrisy.
Our son is coming home and we had to cancel the party. The celebration planned and anticipated for years is cancelled because the tiny town fears it cannot handle the numbers of people that might have shown up. And all week long, his friends and neighbors have fielded hundreds of calls and baskets of hate mail surrounding the safe release of the kid they watched grow up there.
And what is ahead for Bowe? We hope, first, extraordinary medical care. More soldiers have killed themselves in the years after the Afghanistan war than have died in the war itself. These men and women volunteered to serve and were taught to kill — every one of them. We cannot be surprised that messed with their heads. And the horrors of war and the fog of war settled someplace in their souls and they could not quiet the demons or un-see what they had seen and heard.
"Hate the war, love the warrior." It is an old expression and sometimes it is the best we can muster. So for now maybe we can agree on just a few things.
We should have done everything in our power to bring the last solider home. And so we did. If someone as hardline as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Gilad Shalit, a Hamas-captured Israeli corporal who had been held for five years, should we value a single American life any less?
What IS the value of one life? You’d know the answer quickly, if this was your son. And make no mistake — this is our son, our neighbor, our warrior.
All week long as the drumbeats of haters have been pounding louder, I keep hearing a different beat. It is the refrain of a song from "Les Miserables"…
He is young
Let him rest
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.