- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bowe Bergdahl stands, hands at his sides, his loose-fitting Pashtun smock and pants bright white against the rocky landscape. The hillsides are dotted with armed Afghans, rifles ready.

A Black Hawk appears in the clouds. After almost five years in captivity, the American soldier, head shaved, eyes blinking, is about to finally see freedom.

“We’ve been looking for you for a long time,” a member of a special forces team shouts over the roar of the copter. Bergdahl breaks down.

It was supposed to be a moment for celebration, America’s only military captive in the 13-year Afghan conflict free at last. And in his hometown in Idaho, where trees are bedecked with yellow ribbons and prayers never stopped, indeed it is.

But for the rest of the country, Bergdahl’s capture and release have thrust him into a furious debate.

From members of Congress to his own former platoon mates, a storm of critics are livid because Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his post and then released in a swap for five Taliban prisoners. Some also question whether soldiers died as part of efforts to save him.

“He’s a deserter, in every sense of the word,” said Evan Buetow, Bergdahl’s former Army team leader. “And when we got him back … and he was being heralded as a hero and he served honorably and he’s this example that people need to look to - that’s exactly the opposite of what he is.”

Now, as he prepares to head home, these both are true: As a prisoner, Bergdahl endured a lengthy captivity, a fate no one would wish on another. But as a soldier, Bergdahl’s decision to leave his unit endangered the comrades who fruitlessly hunted for him.

Everyday Americans now ask: Is he a victim? A traitor? Are we meant to empathize or admonish?

It’s a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.

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Bergdahl grew up with his parents and older sister Sky amid the breathtaking peaks and valleys of the Sawtooth Mountains. Their home, a humble place with a weather-beaten roof, sits nestled among hills of alder and sage.

There are schools in Hailey, Idaho, 6 miles down the road, but Bergdahl and his sister were taught at home, and he received a GED from a local college. His father worked as a UPS driver.

Hailey, a town of 7,000 that sprang up more than a century ago during a mining boom, is part blue-collar community and part resort town, a funky alternative to the nearby Sun Valley ski resort that’s a winter playground for Hollywood celebrities.

The blond, lanky kid grew up, by all accounts, an explorer. At 17, he sparred at a renaissance fair with the Sun Valley Swords fencing club. He danced into his early 20s with the Sun Valley Ballet School.

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