Robert Bergdahl, the father of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was part of a recent prisoner swap with the Taliban, has gone from White House guest to a media scandal in a matter of days.
His bushy beard, study of Islam and knowledge of Afghani languages has drawn criticism from public figures who question his religious and political allegiances. Other sources, however, view Bergdahl's appearance as a testament to his tireless efforts to bring his son home.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009, the only prisoner of war in a conflict that is over a decade old. His POW status was cause for controversy during his five-year detainment, a phenomenon explored by Rolling Stone in June 2012 and is now being questioned in the wake of claims that he deserted his post.
Now, criticism of his dad is the latest development in an onslaught of negativity that followed President Obama's announcement that the son was freed in exchange for five accused terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, reported Time.
Robert Bergdahl's use of Arabic and Pashto, a national language of Afghanistan, and long beard were the subject of much speculation following an appearance at the White House on Saturday. Bergdahl and his wife, Jani, joined President Obama to announce their son's freedom.
Bill O'Reilly, in a segment for Fox News, described Robert Bergdahl as "somewhat sympathetic to Islam, actually thanking Allah right in front of the president."
Another Fox News host, Brian Kilmeade, was more blunt in his assessment, reported Talking Points Memo. Addressing Bergdahl's beard, Kilmeade said, "You don't have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?"
But Time's Dan Kedmey explained that Bergdahl's beard is a symbol of his dedication to the safe return of his son. He wrote, "Robert Bergdahl's beard looked eerily reminiscent of the beards grown by his son's captors, and that was the point. ... He grew the beard out of a desire to better understand the world from which his son could not escape."
Bergdahl stopped shaving when he learned of his son's disappearance.
His beard was part of the focus of The Washington Post's look at how Bergdahl spent the five years of his son's captivity. A former pastor at the family's Orthodox Presbyterian church told the Post that Bergdahl was aware that his appearance caused discomfort in the small community of Hailey, Idaho, but was focused on winning "any small measure of sympathy from his son's captors."
Bergdahl independently studied Afghani languages, Islamic philosophy and American foreign policy in order to communicate with his son's captors, a process that was captured on film by The Guardian.The video, released the same day as the White House press conference, emphasizes Bergdahl's position as a "father who wants his son back."
A father who, according to World Magazine, "has struggled with his faith in the face of his severe trials." World described the Bergdahl family's relationship to religion over the last 10 years, citing Phil Proctor, a former pastor and family friend.
Bergdahl's only response so far has been to tweet The Guardian's coverage.
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