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updated: 3/6/2012 11:15 AM

Local vets group won't let POW be forgotten

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  • Bill Atkinson of Carol Stream, Ronda Mahar of Wheaton, Bill Sharpness of Kingston and Jim Slenk of Batavia are members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, a veterans group that rented three billboards, including one in Hanover Park, to call attention to the plight of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

       Bill Atkinson of Carol Stream, Ronda Mahar of Wheaton, Bill Sharpness of Kingston and Jim Slenk of Batavia are members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, a veterans group that rented three billboards, including one in Hanover Park, to call attention to the plight of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 veterans group -- including, from left, Jim Slenk of Batavia, Bill Sharpness of Kingston, Ronda Mahar of Wheaton and Bill Atkinson of Carol Stream -- rented billboards, including one in Hanover Park, to call attention to the plight of the lone American POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho.

       Members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 veterans group -- including, from left, Jim Slenk of Batavia, Bill Sharpness of Kingston, Ronda Mahar of Wheaton and Bill Atkinson of Carol Stream -- rented billboards, including one in Hanover Park, to call attention to the plight of the lone American POW, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A Taliban video released Dec. 25, 2009, showed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured more than five months earlier in eastern Afghanistan.

      A Taliban video released Dec. 25, 2009, showed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured more than five months earlier in eastern Afghanistan.
    Associated Press File Photo

  • Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl worked as a barista at Zaney's River Street Coffee House in Hailey, Idaho, before he enlisted in the Army in 2008. After Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan in June 2009, a sign was put up asking patrons to keep the missing soldier in their thoughts.

      Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl worked as a barista at Zaney's River Street Coffee House in Hailey, Idaho, before he enlisted in the Army in 2008. After Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan in June 2009, a sign was put up asking patrons to keep the missing soldier in their thoughts.
    AP File Photo

  • A Taliban video released July 18, 2009, showed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured more than five months earlier in eastern Afghanistan. He said in the video he was "scared I won't be able to go home."

      A Taliban video released July 18, 2009, showed U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured more than five months earlier in eastern Afghanistan. He said in the video he was "scared I won't be able to go home."
    Associated Press File Photo

  • After Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan, people from his hometown of Hailey, Idaho began tying yellow ribbons around trees. Two and a half years later, ribbons remain on the trees throughout Hailey.

      After Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went missing in Afghanistan, people from his hometown of Hailey, Idaho began tying yellow ribbons around trees. Two and a half years later, ribbons remain on the trees throughout Hailey.
    Associated Press File Photo

 
 

From the Vietnam War grew a movement among veterans groups and families to make sure no prisoners of war were forgotten.

That was a different time and a different type of conflict; POWs were not uncommon amid the jungle warfare and airstrikes.

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Today, only one soldier is classified by the Department of Defense as "missing/captured" in current international conflicts: Bowe Bergdahl, a 25-year-old Army sergeant from a small town in Idaho who has been in captivity in Afghanistan since June 30, 2009.

But the familiar refrain of "you are not forgotten" is as important as ever for members of a local veterans group, whose stated mission is to shed light on POW-MIA issues.

The 70 or so members of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, who get together for monthly meetings at the VFW post in Warrenville, are trying to get the word out about Bergdahl's plight by putting up billboards and petitioning Congress.

They hope doing so will help secure Bergdahl's safe return home.

"We're requesting people call their senators and representatives and tell them that this country should do whatever necessary to bring him home," said Bill Atkinson, a Rolling Thunder member and Navy veteran from Carol Stream.

Last month, the group raised money to put up three billboards with Bergdahl's name and picture and a phone number for Congress. The billboards were located at the busy intersection of Lake Street and Barrington Road in Hanover Park and in Southwest suburban Justice and Stickney. They hope to raise the money to do so again.

Atkinson, who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, said members of Rolling Thunder met with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and other members of Congress in Washington, D.C., last year.

"They say everything's being done that can be done," Atkinson said. "We just want to make sure it stays in the limelight."

Bergdahl, 25, is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. He reportedly went missing in the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, an area infiltrated by the Haqqani network, which is connected to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Since 2009, Bergdahl has appeared in five videos released online by the Taliban. During that time, the Army promoted Bergdahl in rank twice, from private first class to specialist to sergeant.

Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, wouldn't discuss specifics as to Bergdahl's capture but did say it "remains our highest priority to secure his safe return."

He also said the military has been providing periodic updates to Bergdahl's family in Hailey, Idaho.

Bergdahl's parents also have been receiving hundreds of letters, cards and emails of support from across the country, said Col. Tim Marsano of the Idaho National Guard, who serves as the family's media liaison.

"They're doing as well as anybody could expect under extraordinary circumstances," Marsano said. "They're coping with the help of their family, their friends and the community in which they live."

Before enlisting in the Army in 2008, Bergdahl worked as a barista at a coffee shop in Hailey, a town of about 7,000 in the central part of the state. He also participated in a sport fencing club and ballet.

Marsano said Bergdahl was "a very well-liked guy."

Locals host an annual remembrance event for their hometown son on June 30. Posters with Bergdahl's image are in the windows of businesses. Bumper stickers are also on cars throughout town.

"All throughout Hailey, I don't think you'll see a tree without a yellow ribbon on it," Marsano said. "People are definitely not forgetting, nor letting anyone else forget."

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

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