(Reuters) - Balloons and celebratory signs sprouted up in the small mountain community of Hailey, Idaho, on Saturday after news that native son U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had been freed after almost five years as a prisoner of the Taliban.
Bergdahl’s parents said they were ecstatic to hear the news from President Barack Obama.
“We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home!” Bob and Jami Bergdahl said in a statement released through the Idaho National Guard. “We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son.”
A senior U.S. defense official said the Bergdahls, who live in Hailey, happened to be in Washington, D.C., when they got the news their son had been freed in a deal that resulted in five Taliban members held at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo, Cuba, being turned over to Qatar.
“We want to thank Bowe’s many supporters in Idaho, around the nation and around the world,” the Bergdahls said.
Bergdahl, the only known missing U.S. soldier in the Afghan war, was captured under unknown circumstances in eastern Afghanistan by militants on June 30, 2009, about two months after arriving in the country.
It was not yet known when he would be coming back to the United States. But news of the release prompted celebration in his hometown of Hailey.
“Once we heard about it, we were pretty excited,” said 17-year-old Real Weatherly, who was making signs and blowing up balloons to hang outside the shop where she works. “We want to let people know he’s free.“
The town had been planning a vigil for June 28 as part of a long-running “Bring Bowe Back” campaign. That celebration will go ahead but will now be called “Bowe is Home 2014,” or “Bowe is Back,” said organizer Debbie O‘Neill.
O‘Neill said the community had never forgotten Bergdahl and recently refreshed the yellow ribbons that have been tied to posts around town for the past five years in his honor.
Signs that read: “Standing with Bowe” decorate many storefronts in the community of about 8,000 people, which makes up part of an affluent resort region in central Idaho considered an international ski destination.
“The people of this community have been living with yellow ribbons around trees and yellow ‘Bring Bowe Home’ stickers plastered everywhere for so long that it won’t seem real at first,” said Mike McKenna, a Hailey resident who publishes the Sun Valley Magazine. ”But then, when Bowe finally comes back to Hailey ... the celebration will really begin.”
Chip Deffe, operator of a local bike shop in Hailey and friend of the Bergdahls, said: “With them, it was never ‘if Bowe comes home’ but ‘when Bowe comes home,’”
“Bowe has been in our prayers for years,” Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter said in a statement. “Today Idaho gives thanks.”
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Laura Zuckerman and Carey Gillam; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Frances Kerry, Gunna Dickson and Peter Cooney