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Bowe Bergdahl: Strong, well-rounded and easy to talk to, friends say

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(CNN) — Most people know U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl only through news reports that chronicled the soldier’s captivity for nearly five years at the hands of militants in Afghanistan.

He was the man featured in so-called proof-of-life videos released by the Taliban, pleading for his freedom.

In some, he seemed to be in diminished health, a picture that has been hard to grasp for family and friends. For them, “strong” has been a word often associated with Bergdahl.

That attribute no doubt served the 28-year-old well during his captivity, which ended Saturday with his release in exchange for five detainees from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

“Sgt. Bergdahl is now under the care of the U.S. military after being handed over by his captors in Afghanistan,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a written statement.

“We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family.”

Among those who know Bergdahl, he’s been referred to as a Renaissance man in the making who learned ballet, took up the sport of fencing and loved the outdoors. He rode motorcycles and learned to sail, and by the age of 23 had been part of an expedition that took him from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

Friends from Bergdahl’s hometown, Hailey, Idaho, said he dreamed of using a boat and his bicycle to ride around the world; he has an adventurous spirit and wanted to go see the world.

He toured Europe before joining the Army.

After he was taken captive, CNN spoke to friends of his, including a fishing boat captain who hired Bergdahl two years earlier. Bergdahl spent 10 weeks on the vessel near Bristol Bay, Alaska, pulling in sockeye salmon for 18 to 20 hours a day.

Dan Collins said it was hard, grueling work.

“But he was up to it,” Collins said. “I am at times not the easiest guy to get along with, being a fishing boat’s captain. But I imagine I am easy compared to what he is dealing with every day now.”

In his hometown, many residents kept yellow ribbons tied around trees. It was there in 2009 that Sue Martin, owner of Zaney’s Coffee Shop, spoke glowingly of her former barista.

“Bowe is not somebody in the corner,” she said then. “You engage, and he engages very well.

“He captures you,” Martin said.

Bergdahl was a seeker, a hard worker, a man raised and home-schooled in a small town. He could talk to anyone. And he was polite, very polite.

One rainy evening, the sheriff in his Idaho community stopped to offer him a ride. Bergdahl, who was drenched and walking his bike, said he wouldn’t want to get the car wet, so no thanks. And he kept walking.

“Kind of tells you a little bit about the person,” recalled Walt Femling, who knew Bergdahl through renting him an apartment the sheriff owned.

“I don’t usually rent to 20-year-olds,” Femling said. He trusted Bergdahl.

“There’s not many young people who have the kind manners he has,” said neighbor Minna Casser. “He’s a gentleman and a sportsman.”

The Bergdahl family hasn’t spoken much publicly about their son but has fought very hard privately for his release. His father, Robert Bergdahl, has made frequent trips to Washington for behind-the-scenes meetings with U.S. officials.

CNN’s Ed Lavandera, who has spoken to the Bergdahl family many times, said Robert Bergdahl taught himself the languages and customs of the Afghan region and even grew a beard to show solidarity with his son. He posted a YouTube video in May 2011, and a year later, he spoke at a Memorial Day event in Washington that was attended by more than 100,000 people.

“Bowe, your family has not forgotten you; your hometown has not forgotten you. Your state of Idaho has not forgotten you, and thanks to all of you here today, Washington, D.C., has not forgotten you,” Robert Bergdahl told a cheering crowd.

“We love you. We are proud of you. Stay strong. Never give up. We pray for the day that we welcome you home,” he said.