Phil Proctor remembers pastoral visits to Bowe Bergdahl’s home more than a decade ago. In 2003, Bergdahl was a teenager living with his parents and older sister in their rural home in Hailey, Idaho. Proctor was pastor of Sovereign Redeemer Presbyterian Church, an Orthodox Presbyterian (OPC) congregation in Boise.
The Bergdahls built their home in a picturesque valley, filled it with books, and homeschooled their children. Proctor remembers the family—including Bowe—as rugged, outgoing, and highly intelligent.
More than 10 years later, the rural family has seized international attention: On Saturday, a group of Taliban militants released Bowe Bergdahl—now a sergeant in the U.S. Army—after holding him captive for nearly five years.
Bergdahl, 28, disappeared from his post in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan in June 2009 and had only resurfaced in a handful of videos his captors released during the last few years. On Saturday, Bob and Jani Bergdahl stood in the White House Rose Garden with President Barack Obama to celebrate their son’s release.
But the celebration isn’t without controversy. Questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, and the deal the U.S. government struck to gain his release last week.
Some soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit believe he deserted his post after becoming disaffected with the military. Before his capture, Bergdahl had written emails to his parents that included strong anti-American sentiment, according to a 2012 article in Rolling Stone.
During the last few days, fellow soldiers have described dangerous missions to find Bergdahl after his disappearance, and have said at least six soldiers died in the search. Military officials haven’t confirmed the deaths were related to searches for Bergdahl. Gen. Martin Dempsey—the highest-ranking U.S. military officer—said Bergdahl is “innocent until proven guilty,” but added the Army would “not look away from misconduct if it occurred.”
In a barter for Bergdahl’s freedom, the U.S government agreed to release five top Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay prison. The deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan sent the militants to the nation of Qatar. Some Republicans say the negotiations violated U.S. law requiring the president to inform Congress ahead of such deals. Others say the move puts a price on the head of other soldiers vulnerable to capture. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.—who endured five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War—joined others in expressing concern over the potential danger posed by the released militants: “These are the hardest of the hard core.”
Proctor—Bergdahl’s former pastor in Idaho—didn’t discuss the political questions surrounding the soldier’s disappearance and release during an interview on Monday, but he did offer insights into the struggles the family has faced over the last decade.
Proctor served as pastor at the Idaho church for just six months before pursuing missionary work in Uganda in 2003, but he grew close to the Bergdahls. He has since returned from the mission field and serves as pastor of an OPC congregation in Sterling, Va.
Aside from the pastoral visits with the Bergdahl family, the pastor said he also counseled Bowe regarding his struggles with Christianity: “He was asking questions about whether this faith was his faith or his parents’ faith. … He very much wanted to know things for himself.”
After Proctor left for Uganda he maintained contact with the Bergdahls. By 2007, Bowe’s father, Bob Bergdahl, approached Proctor about Bowe spending a summer in the Ugandan mission field. But Proctor and his family were returning to the United States for furlough, so he suggested the following summer.
During the next year, Bowe continued to wrestle spiritually and spent time in a Buddhist monastery. By 2008, he had joined the U.S. Army and soon headed to Afghanistan. According to another church officer, Bowe never publicly professed faith in Christ before joining the military.
Proctor was still in Uganda when Bowe disappeared in 2009. After the Proctors returned to the United States in 2011, they regularly hosted Bowe’s parents when they traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet government officials to talk about Bowe’s captivity. Proctor spoke to the couple by phone once or twice a month.
Bob Bergdahl devoted himself to his son’s release, retiring early, growing a Taliban–style beard, and learning the local Afghan language to make videos and communicate with Afghans about his son. Bowe’s sister Sky kept a blog with frequent prayers for her brother. In a 2012 post, she wrote:
“You are my God and like no other, You alone work all things together for the good of those who obey Your commands. … Please be with Bowe, grant him an awareness of You that heals his heart and fills him with hope! May he seek Your face and mercy and never give up. In Jesus I pray.”
Meanwhile, Bob Bergdahl struggled with his faith in the face of his severe trials. Proctor said the grieving father has been open with him about his struggles. “And at the same time he has always come back to his belief that God is in control, and his very strong commitment to clinging to Christ,” Proctor said. “It is very much like a Job situation.”
Trials likely will continue as U.S. military officials prepare Bowe Bergdahl to return home. Officials say the soldier is in good condition at a U.S. Army base in Germany, where he will undergo medical treatment, process his experiences, and begin communicating with his family again. (Robert Coie of the OPC’s Committee on Chaplains and Military Personnel said a pair of chaplains in Germany hadn’t yet gained access to visit Bergdahl as he recovers.)
Even as controversy over Bergdahl’s disappearance and release grows, Proctor said he’s praying for “a healing in the comfort of the gospel.” He told his congregation—which joined many other congregations in praying for Bergdahl regularly—that the soldier would remain on the church’s prayer list: “Now those prayers need to change in focus to healing. … And I see that primarily as spiritual.”