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Why Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown canceled its celebration

The town of Hailey, Idaho, will not be celebrating the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after all.

After five years in captivity, held by Taliban-affiliated insurgents in the hostile terrain of western Pakistan, the 28-year-old Idaho native was released Saturday after being exchanged for five Taliban leaders imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A celebration scheduled for June 28 honoring the returning solider was canceled on Wednesday, days after his release was announced. The statement from the event’s organizers said:

Hailey community members who worked during March and April of this year to organize their annual Bring Bowe Back event in Hailey have asked to cancel the event. When the news of Bowe Bergdahl’s release was announced this past Saturday, the organizers joyfully declared that the event would be renamed Bowe is Back, and would become a celebration of family and friends being reunited with their son who was had been held captive in Afghanistan for five years. In the past, the event had been a celebration of support to the family through these many years.
National media attention on Hailey and this event has led many across the nation to believe that the event is intended to be a military parade. There is broad interest in this topic, as evidenced by the approximate 100 correspondences per day received by the City of Hailey this week. The organizers and Hailey expect a significant increase in attendance to this event, by people who both want to support or protest against it.
In the interest of public safety, the event will be cancelled. Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become.

When the prisoner exchange was first announced on May 31, Bergdahl’s former neighbors were overjoyed. “People called this newspaper, called their friends, and announced to perfect strangers that Saturday was a great day because of the news that the young soldier was coming home. People gathered spontaneously in Hailey where they hugged, shed tears and smiled at the same time,” the Idaho Mountain Express, the town’s newspaper, said in an editorial.

Ken Ferris, a building project manager in Hailey, told the hometown paper he was “thrilled” when he heard the news of Bowe’s release: “My kids used to play with him and I feel a sense of relief. He’s one of our ‘boys’ and I’m glad that he’s free.”

“I am totally excited. I’ve known the family for 25 years and to know that they are going to be able to reach out and hug their son is euphoric,” said Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter.

The town, where Bergdahl took fencing and ballet lessons, and where he worked at the local gun club and as a barista, was ready to greet its prodigal son with open arms.

The “Bowe is Back” celebration planned by citizens of the tiny ski town was to be held in a public park on June 28. The event was to include live music, notably an appearance by Carole King, a raffle kids’ activities, motorcycles, a 5k race, and food and drinks from local restaurants, according to an event flyer posted on the Bring Bowe Back 2014 Facebook page.

But controversy over the circumstances of Bergdahl’s departure from his platoon and the handling of his release by the Obama administration stirred anger. Furious phone calls and e-mails from all over the country flooded the town.

As of Tuesday, city hall had received about 160 e-mails about Bergdahl. Eric Gonzales, a reporter with KBOI2, a local TV station, read all of them. Only three or four were positive. Most of the e-mails were from veterans.

“I’ve an idea … Send an invitation to the families of the 6 honorable soldiers killed trying to find him on his ‘walkabout,’” one e-mail read.

“I also am a huge supporter of President Obama, but, in my opinion, he made a big mistake trading the 5 thugs and terrorists for this deserter,” stated another.

“According to Bergdahl’s father, ‘Hailey is just like Afghanistan.’ Congratulations, you made my list of places to avoid in America,” said another.

Some e-mails attacked Bergdahl’s father, calling him a Muslim. Others threatened to boycott the town. Many asked the city not to celebrate Bergdahl as a hero, calling him a traitor and a deserter, Gonzales reported.

Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle released a statement on Monday. “For the men and women who choose to serve, the City of Hailey believes we do not leave our soldiers behind. Bowe Bergdahl’s family is a part of our community. We celebrate the return of their son to his hometown,” he wrote, adding, “The City of Hailey respectfully requests that people do not pre-judge this young man.”

On Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed similar sentiments. He told the Associated Press that it is possible charges will be brought against Bergdahl related to the circumstances of his disappearance. As for his release from captivity, the general said, “For me, it was about living up to our ethos, which is to leave no soldier behind. And on that basis I was relieved to get Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl back in the ranks.”

But elsewhere, the outrage continued. On Wednesday, Kristy Heitzman, the membership director of the Hailey Chamber of Commerce, told the Idaho Statesman that City Hall and the Hailey Police Department had received many angry calls. One came from a trucker who said he would make sure to stop in Hailey to dump off his trash.

The Chamber wasn’t sponsoring or organizing the return celebration, Heitzman said, but had promoted the event on its Facebook page.

Local business owners have also felt the backlash. The callers “say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame it is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Heitzman told the Statesman. “They say they had planned on coming to the area to go fishing or camping, but now they won’t be coming to Idaho.” She said travelers canceled reservations at local hotel rooms because they were upset by the Bergdahl situation. “Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think anybody anticipated this much of a blowback,” she said. “We thought it would be like [Olympic snowboarding gold medalist and Hailey native] Kaitlyn Farrington coming back from the Olympics. We thought it was somebody coming home.”

The town is used to celebrity — Bruce Willis and Demi Moore once lived there. But this kind of attention is different.

“Like Bergdahl, the town of Hailey isn’t easily characterized,” the AP observed. “The community prizes privacy, and that trait combined with the posh Sun Valley ski resort next door, has prompted dozens of celebrities to build second homes there. But the influx of affluence hasn’t changed the come-as-you-are attitude and fierce loyalty of most residents. Bergdahl was captured in 2009 by insurgents and the Pentagon concluded in 2010 that he walked away from his unit. After the capture, the community largely refused to talk to the press.”