Lying exhausted on a grimy stretcher, the 20-year-old captive they saw in harrowing TV images Monday was not the Northern California youth they had known: a frail scholar who had left his prosperous but broken home to study Arabic in Yemen and help the poor in Pakistan.
Nobody back home had heard from John Philip Walker Lindh in 6 months. In that time, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban had armed him with a Kalashnikov rifle and dispatched him to jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
All he told his mother, Marilyn Walker, in May was that he was ''going to be moving somewhere cooler for the summer.''
Shocked to see her ''sweet, shy'' son nursing combat wounds and possibly facing federal prosecution for treason, she told Newsweek : ''If he got involved with the Taliban, he must have been brainwashed. He was isolated. He didn't know a soul in Pakistan. When you're young and impressionable, it's easy to be led by charismatic people.''
Frank Lindh, his father, told USA TODAY Monday that the boy's interest in Islam developed at the age of 16 from a school assignment to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X . Frank Lindh said his son was ''impressed that toward the end of his life, Malcolm X had turned to the traditional form of Islam.''
The elder Lindh said the family is ''relieved to know that he has been found and is basically OK and under protection of U.S. special forces.''
Family friend Bill Jones insisted that John Lindh was not acting of his own accord. ''He's a scholar, not a fighter,'' Jones said. ''This is like Patty Hearst all over again.''
There was less surprise at the nearby Islamic Center of Mill Valley, center of the man's circle of young friends. India-born Abdullah Nana, 23, and his father, Ebrahim Nana, said they hadn't expected to see the ''humble, soft-spoken and quiet'' Lindh in a soldier's tunic. But Abdullah Nana said: ''John did things of his own choice and acted on his own. He's not brainwashed. I think he's acting in his own will.''
Independent thinking is prized in upscale, socially liberal Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. In the 10 years they had lived in the county since moving from the Washington, D.C., area, where he was born, Lindh's parents had encouraged and supported the second of their three children in his emerging spiritual independence.
The parents separated several years ago. Frank Lindh is a lawyer for Pacific Gas & Electric. Marilyn Walker is a home health care worker who provided a role model for her son through her interest in Buddhism.
Lindh began studying at the Islamic Center in 1997. That year, he switched from Redwood High School to Temescal High School, where students are ''self-directed, driven, independent thinkers,'' principal Marcie Miller said. At his graduation in 1998, Lindh had his name listed in the program as Suleyman Al-Lindh.
''I think it's a positive thing,'' Frank Lindh said of his son's conversion to Islam from Catholicism. He described his son as ''very religious and a very centered, responsible boy.''
At 18, after a year at the College of Marin, Lindh traveled to Yemen. From there he moved to a village in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, where ''the people in general have a great love for the Taliban,'' he said in a CNN interview televised Monday. He was attending a religious school that teaches a fundamentalist form of Islam.
In the pro-Taliban atmosphere, Lindh said, he read the movement's scholarly literature and studied Afghan history. ''My heart became attached to that.''
Lindh, who did not know the local languages well, said he was told to join the foreign forces trained and funded by bin Laden. He said he saw bin Laden several times at a training camp.
Lindh said that after rifle training he was sent to Kashmir to fight alongside Pakistanis against Indian control. Then he returned to Afghanistan.
When U.S. bombing began, he fled to the northern city of Kunduz, where he was captured. He was imprisoned with more than 3,000 pro-Taliban soldiers in a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif that was the site of a prisoner uprising.
Frank Lindh, speaking on CNN Monday night, said that he wanted to give his son a hug but also a ''little kick in the butt, too,'' for going to Afghanistan without permission.