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Breaking the silence

Sabine Parrish, a senior, said she is thankful for the TIME Magazine feature on Bergdahl, but that it presented some facts she had not known prior to reading it; for example, his allies in his escape attempt were killed after his recapture. Photo by Cassie Czarnetzke

Karen Parrish did not want chocolates for Mother’s Day. She did not ask her three children for an assortment of flowers or a homemade card. On May 13, Karen requested only that her family accompany her to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where for three hours she would stand with a sign that read, “What would you be willing to do if Bowe was your son?”

On June 30, 2009, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group allied with the Taliban. Bergdahl’s past three birthdays — March marked his 26th — have elapsed on foreign soil, as a POW in Afghanistan.

Karen’s daughter, UW senior Sabine Parrish, stood beside her mother, equally as outspoken to the passing crowds at Pike Place. Distributing stickers with Bergdahl’s face and bright yellow bracelets brandishing his name and date of capture, Sabine asked strangers if they knew about America’s only POW in Afghanistan, if they had heard of Bowe Bergdahl. The answer, mother and daughter agreed, was resoundingly unanimous: “No.”

“Of 300 people we engaged directly, maybe five of them knew,” said Karen, an employee in the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.

“The Parrish Army,” as Sabine called them, educated as many tourists and visitors as possible. Many, intrigued, stopped to read the signs. One pair of girls, however, left Sabine unnerved. As she handed the girls stickers, one cringed.

“And she said, ‘Oh no, can we have bracelets? I don’t want to see the face, that’s too personal.’”

As Sabine held out the plastic bands, she couldn’t help but contemplate.

“If you think it’s too personal to see his face, how do you think I feel?”

Sabine met Bergdahl when she was 14 years old. The Parrishes were living in Hailey, Idaho. With a population of about 8,000, Hailey is skirted by the Big Wood River and encircled by the Sawtooth National Forest. Twelve miles north sits the city of Ketchum and the Sun Valley Ski Resort, where many Hailey residents work.

Sabine attended classes with Bergdahl at Ketchum’s Sun Valley Ballet School.

“One day this guy showed up in my ballet class and he was very serious,” she said. “So for months and months I didn’t really know him.”

The two became acquainted April Fool’s Day that year, after Sabine fell prey to Bergdahl’s rigging of the hall’s water fountain. Sabine returned from a class break soaked.

“And he just broke out, full smile, full laughing,” she said. “And I hadn’t really seen that before from him.”

Sabine learned Bergdahl had enrolled in ballet to improve his strength and flexibility for martial arts. He was homeschooled, but knew friends of hers in the city’s only high school, Wood River. She now describes Bergdahl as exceedingly “kind, smart, and curious.”

“We’d spend a lot of time just talking about various — not even anything in particular — just various mysteries of the world,” she said. “Just wondering, because sometimes you feel a little trapped when you’re in the valley. … He was always wanting to learn more.”

The Parrishes moved to Seattle the week before Sabine turned 15. Sabine and Bergdahl remained in contact. She heard of his travels: to Europe, Alaska, through the Panama Canal.

Bergdahl’s decision to join the military, however, shocked both Karen and Sabine. Sabine received the news while studying abroad in Switzerland.

“I got an email like, ‘Hey, I’m on my way to training,’” she said. “I was upset. I am adamantly anti–military intervention and anti-war. I argued with him about it, but it was too late, he had already signed up. The deed was done, and as a friend, you can do nothing but support.”

Sabine said Bergdahl enlisted for a philanthropic element he perceived in the service.

“To help people, to experience other parts of the world, to learn other cultures,” she said. “He saw it in more humanistic terms.”

His parents, Karen explained, said Bergdahl joined so that he could help the Afghan people.

“Still,” Karen added, “he’s the last person I would think would join the military.”

Bergdahl was based in Alaska before deployment to Afghanistan. After reaching the Middle East, he sent Sabine two emails.

“The first one was just ‘I’m here, I’m settling in; it’s terrain that’s quite similar to the Rockies over here; it is much higher but it’s beautiful. It kind of reminds me of home,’” she recalled.

The next regarded a convoy trip that had frustrated Bergdahl.

Sabine said Bergdahl’s second email “was a little more pessimistic, tired.” Afghanistan was not what he had been expecting. Sabine summed up Bergdahl’s message.

“You can’t control what goes on over there; a one-day mission turns into six,” she said.

About three weeks later, after her shift at a local coffee shop, Sabine sat in her apartment, waiting for her computer screen to load. Her home page, BBC News, registered.

“Before I read the headline I was thinking, ‘Why is Bowe’s picture on the front page of BBC?’ And then I read it,” she said. “I was so despondent, just sitting there crying, like ‘What do I even do?’ It was one of the worst, most surreal, terrifying days in my life.”

Sabine didn’t want her mother to learn of Bergdahl’s capture as she had “from the news or on the radio.”

“I wanted her to hear it from me.” she said.

At first, all Karen could comprehend as she answered the phone was her daughter’s frantic voice. Then, Sabine collected herself.

“They have him, they have him, they have him.”

She was finally able to take a breath.

“Mom, they’ve captured Bowe.”

For the first few days, Sabine said the world was “like walking through Jell-O.”

“Nothing made sense,” she said. “It was so confusing that something like this could happen.”

Before Bowe’s capture, Sabine’s mother had never met Jani or Bob Bergdahl, Bowe’s parents. Karen contacted Jani via email, and over the next trying three years, the two built a friendship. Karen has played a strong role of support for Jani.

“To just say ‘when’ he comes home, not ‘if’ — and he’s going to be OK,” Karen said. “She’s a woman of great faith, so she relies heavily on her trust in God. You can imagine you cycle through despair and depression and hope and all back around all over again.”

The Bergdahls were advised by the government to deny media requests to speak of their son’s capture. The Parrishes, therefore, chose to remain silent as well.

“If we keep a low profile, if they don’t think that he’s that important over here, we’ll get a better chance of getting him back,” Sabine said of the government’s logic.

In papers published by WikiLeaks, the Taliban is quoted as dubbing Bowe a “golden chicken.” The group believes he is of great value to the American people, that he possesses significant trading value.

Silent to the world, behind closed doors, the Bergdahls lobbied the State Department and the Defense Department to secure their son’s release.

Idaho Guard Spokesman Col. Tim Marsano was assigned to act as a liaison between the Bergdahls and the press, a role he has assumed for families “about two dozen times in the last 10 years.”

“What the news media are going to want when they find out that a soldier has been killed or, in this case, captured, if the family is not willing to do interviews — and the Bergdahl’s weren’t — then they’ll want a photo, which I obtained and distributed,” Marsono said over the phone.

Preferably in person, maybe sitting at the family’s kitchen table, Marsano takes handwritten notes on how the family feels and what they want to say about their loved one.

Afterwards, Marsano said he will ask, “I think this is what you told me, is this what you want?”

After major milestones, such as the anniversary of Bowe’s capture or as videos of Bowe have been released by his captors, Marsano will aid the Bergdahls in releasing a statement.

“It’s always their thoughts; it’s always their words. It’s just me crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s,” he said.

Five videos have been released by Bowe’s captors. The third video was released December 25, 2009.

“We watched about five seconds of it, and [Sabine] said, ‘Turn it off, mom. I can’t watch this,’” Karen remembered. “So we spent about three hours on Christmas day sobbing on the couch.

She shook her head.

“Just the cruelty, the cruelty of releasing that on Christmas day.”

In the fall of this year, Bergdahl attempted to escape. He was recaptured three days later. TIME Magazine reported that, according to one of the Haqqani network’s commanders, Bergdahl was physically punished for his effort.

Karen has been unable to bring herself to speak with Jani about Bergdahl’s recapture. Evidence exists that before Bowe fled, he had befriended his captors, and they had stopped shackling him. He was given freedom to exercise and, in the video released on Christmas, Bowe states he is “given the freedom to be a human being, even though I’m a prisoner.”

“They thought they could trust him, and then God only knows how he’s being treated at this point, which makes getting him back even more pressing,” Karen said.

Negotiations, set for last month, a deal to trade five senior Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for Bergdahl, fell through.

Then, three weeks ago, Bergdahl’s parents couldn’t remain silent any longer.

Karen received an email from Jani, stating the strategy Jani and her husband had been using to bring their son home had not been working.

Bob Bergdahl — who is teaching himself Pashtu and Urdu to follow Pakistani and Afghani blogs and will not cut the growing beard on his always clean-shaven face while his son is unable to cut his own — began speaking to the press.

Marsano was unaware of the Bergdahls’ decision to talk with reporters.

“I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “They have always known it was their decision to speak to the media or not to, and so they exercised their right to speak as they knew they could.”

The press, Marsano said, had been pressuring him for an exclusive opportunity to interview the Bergdahls.

“Oh yeah they did, you better believe it. I’ve had probably 200 media contacts since this began and every one of them, they’ve wanted Bob and Jani Bergdahl to speak with them,” he said. “And we’re talking all the major television networks, we’re talking all the major print outlets, radio around the world, BBC, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Good Morning America, the Today Show, CBS This Morning. They have been unrelenting to get the Bergdahls to speak.”

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Stickers aim to publicize the capture of Bergdahl, along with a seven-page feature in the May 28, 2012 issue of TIME Magazine.

Karen and Sabine were relieved by the Bergdahls’ resolution.

“It’s been so long and I’m tired of being quiet,” Sabine said.

Each year, participants in “Rolling Thunder,” an annual event to recognize POWs and persons missing in action, mount their motorcycles and ride through Washington, D.C., to promote awareness the Sunday preceding Memorial Day. This year, roughly half a million riders participated. The Parrishes were two of them, sitting on the back of Harleys.

Over Memorial Day weekend, mother and daughter flew to Washington, D.C., to support Jani and Bob, who were guests of honor and featured speakers at “Rolling Thunder.”

The Bergdahls and Parrishes both participated.

At first, Sabine was uneasy after discovering what exactly participating in Sunday’s event entailed.

“I am not a motorcycle person,” she said. “But then I thought, Bowe is going to laugh his ass off when he finds out that I did this. And that’s why I’m going.”

Both families are dedicated to spreading the word.

As Karen stood in front of Pike Place on Mother’s Day, she remembers one memorable young man approaching her. A soldier.

“And he said, ‘Thanks so much for what you’re doing. Thanks for doing this on Mother’s Day,’ and I said,” Karen paused and exhaled slowly, “and I said, ‘How could I think of doing anything else?’”

Reach reporter Devon Geary at features@dailyuw.com.

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