HAILEY, Idaho — There will be no hero’s welcome for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in his hometown, no fanfare of parades, music or picnics in the park.
A celebration planned for the end of June marking his return after five years as a captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been scrapped, largely due to security concerns as his release has touched off a nationwide debate.
Was Bergdahl an American prisoner of war who should be welcomed home after years in the enemy’s hands, or a deserter who should be punished accordingly?
For those who knew Bergdahl and his family in this small central Idaho town, the politics of war have no place. They just want Bergdahl back home.
“It’s like a modern-day lynching. He hasn’t even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what,” said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahl family and watched Bowe grow up. “He’s a hometown kid and he’s already suffered enough.”
The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls, labeling the 28-year-old Bergdahl un-American and a traitor. Given the prospect of large crowds on both sides of the debate, organizers cancelled their welcome-home celebration.
“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention, we don’t know what to expect,” Police Chief Jeff Gunter said.
Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said she and the organization have received angry mail and calls from people lambasting the town’s plans. “The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.
Bergdahl was captured after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009. He’s currently at a military hospital in Germany, where he was reported in stable condition.
His parents have spoken publicly only briefly since his release. Several cars were parked outside their modest home Wednesday behind a closed gate with signs that read, “Guard dog on duty” and “No Trespassing.”
U.S. lawmakers and others have also complained that Congress should have been consulted about the prisoner exchange, that the deal will embolden the Taliban to snatch more American soldiers, and that the released Afghans will filter back to the battlefield.
A Taliban statement quoted leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as saying the release of the five Taliban was a significant achievement. President Barack Obama has defended the swap, citing a “sacred” obligation to not leave men and women in uniform behind.
Hoping to ease mounting criticism, officials from the State Department, Pentagon and intelligence agencies briefed senators behind closed doors Wednesday evening. They showed the lawmakers a 1 1/2-minute video provided by the Taliban that proved Bergdahl was alive and indicated to the administration that his deteriorating health required quick action.
The administration is required to notify Congress 30 days before transferring detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but the White House thought waiting was too risky — that too much could go wrong in a month so they went forward with the fast-moving negotiations.
Some of Bergdahl’s former comrades have complained that U.S. soldiers died during the search for him after he walked away, a charge the military has not confirmed.
U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Army will review the case.