The sight of Bowe Bergdahl’s father standing by President Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden Saturday might have come as a shock to viewers unfamiliar with his long bushy beard, reminiscent of the facial hair often grown by devotees of Islam, including his sons’ captors. His rudimentary knowledge of Pashto and Urdu, prevailing languages in Taliban strongholds, compounded the confusion.
But as Robert Bergdahl explained to TIME in May 2012, he grew the beard out of a desire to better understand the world from which his son could not escape.
Robert Bergdahl said he began growing the beard as soon as he received news of his son’s capture. He was on his usual UPS delivery route on July 1, 2009, when management radioed him back to headquarters. Two army officers delivered the devastating news, and according to friends, he resolved in that moment to do whatever he could to facilitate his son’s release. That included scouring websites and chat rooms for rumors about his son’s captors, teaching himself Pashto and Urdu and growing a long, eye-catching beard.
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A devout Presbyterian, Bergdahl was aware of the impression he made on local congregants. His former pastor told the Washington Post that Bergdahl occasionally explained to friends that he had not developed any sympathies for the Taliban, he only wanted to understand their worldview.
Nonetheless, those attempts to understand the Taliban have occasionally shaded into acts and gestures that strike some critics as a little too close for comfort. Just recently, reports surfaced of a tweet deleted from Bob Bergdahl’s Twitter account that directly addressed a Taliban spokesman. “I am still working to free all Guantanamo prisoners,” it read. “God will repay for the death of every Afghan child, ameen.”