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Tears of joy: Idaho hometown of Bowe Bergdahl prepares homecoming

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 12:38 PM EDT, Sun June 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's parents appear at White House with president
  • NEW: "Yes, it's a good day," mother tells Obama after exchanging a hug, a kiss
  • NEW: Father says his son's recovery will be "a considerable task for our family"
  • "We're all just waiting to get eyes on him: that's going to be a topper," friend says

(CNN) -- The locals of Hailey, Idaho, filled Sherry Horton's wine bar and uncorked champagne Saturday in celebration of hometown hero Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release in Afghanistan after nearly five years in enemy captivity.

"It's very exciting," said Horton, a friend and former roommate of Bergdahl. "We're all still kind of walking around on clouds. We're all just waiting to get eyes on him. That's going to be a topper."

Bergdahl's parents, Jani and Bob, have been crusading online and in Washington, D.C., for years to ensure their 28-year-old son was never forgotten and assert he was an America POW held by the Taliban, though the military categorized him as a missing soldier captured.

Friends, family await Bergdahl's return
Obama address Sgt. Bergdahl release

Whatever the term, Bergdahl is no longer being held.

"His mother was crying when she answered the phone -- and just very excited," Horton told CNN.

Bergdahl's parents appeared with President Barack Obama at the White House on Saturday evening to discuss the release.

"I just want to say thank you everyone who has supported Bowe. He's had a wonderful team everywhere. We will continue to stay strong for Bowe while he recovers," Jani Bergdahl told reporters at the Rose Garden.

Bob Bergdahl extended thanks "around the world" and noted how the president called them about the news. He said his son is now having trouble speaking English. The father also spoke in one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan.

"The complicated nature of this recovery will really never be comprehended," said Bob Bergdahl, who has grown a long beard.

"We just can't communicate the words this morning when we heard from the President," he added. "So we look forward to continue the recovery of our son, which is going to be a considerable task for our family and we hope that the media will understand that that will keep us very preoccupied in the coming days and weeks as he gets back home to the United States."

After the couple's brief remarks, they thanked Obama, and Jani Bergdahl and Obama exchanged a hug and a kiss.

"Wonderful. Good day," Obama told her.

"Yes, it's a good day," she told the president.

Earlier in the day, the parents released a short statement.

"Today, we are ecstatic!" the couple said. "We were so joyful and relieved when President Obama called us today to give us the news that Bowe is finally coming home! We cannot wait to wrap our arms around our only son," the parents said.

A website that has been crusading for Bergdahl's returned posted a note of success: "He's free, he's safe. He will be home soon!"

The Rocky Mountain town of Hailey is just minutes from the renowned tourist destination of Sun Valley, famed for its skiing. Residents didn't have to worry Saturday about adorning Hailey with yellow ribbons because local scouts just put up fresh ones the past week, Horton said.

The hometown crowd was laboring Saturday, however, to erect signs welcoming Bergdahl home, Horton said. "Everybody is celebrating."

The end of Bergdahl's half decade of captivity resonated beyond the valley town.

"We join all of Idaho and America in expressing our joy and welcoming this wonderful news," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said in a statement. "Today, Idaho gives thanks. Soon we all will celebrate Bowe's freedom and homecoming."

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the top Senate Democrat, described the moment as "a great day for the United States" and Bergdahl's safe return marks the "nation's commitment to leave no service member behind."

"I commend the diplomats, service members, and others who worked tirelessly to bring Sergeant Bergdahl home, and I commend President Obama for taking decisive action to achieve the agreement leading to his release when the opportunity arose," Reid said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the "cost of years of captivity to Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and his family is immeasurable."

Not everyone was thoroughly jubilant.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was pleased about Bergdahl's release but he was "extremely troubled" by how the United States negotiated with the Taliban to release Bergdahl in exchange for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

"This fundamental shift in US policy signals to terrorists around the world a greater incentive to take U.S. hostages," said Rogers, R-Michigan. "Further, I have little confidence in the security assurances regarding the movement and activities of the now released Taliban leaders and I have even less confidence in this Administration's willingness to ensure they are enforced. I believe this decision will threaten the lives of American soldiers for years to come."

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, termed the release "fantastic," but indicated concerns remain about negotiating with the Taliban.

"There are still questions around the entire operation, knowing what it took to make this happen, but at least for today we can be happy that Bowe is back in U.S. hands," Hunter said.

A senior administration official said Bergdahl's release wasn't a concession and was in line with Obama's goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who's chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, supported Obama's decision, "particularly in light of Sgt. Bergdahl's declining health," she said.

"It demonstrates that America leaves no soldier behind," she said.

CNN's Erin McPike, Dana Bash, Barbara Starr, Ray Sanchez and Jason Morris contributed to this report.

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