By Laura Zuckerman
HAILEY Idaho (Reuters) – A hometown celebration of Bowe Bergdahl’s release from five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan will go on this month as planned, despite a growing backlash against the U.S. Army sergeant over allegations he was a deserter, friends and supporters say.
Days after the small mountain community of Hailey, Idaho, erupted in elation over news that he had been freed in a prisoner exchange, the festive mood in town has been tempered by claims from former members of his combat unit that Bergdahl had deliberately abandoned his post.
Some of his one-time comrades assert that the massive search for Bergdahl after he went missing in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, may have cost the lives of up to six fellow soldiers who searched for him.
The U.S. military has said the circumstances under which Bergdahl disappeared have yet to be fully investigated, though Pentagon officials have indicated Bergdahl is unlikely to face charges regardless of what the Army learns of his capture because he has suffered enough.
Still, for all the outpouring of hometown joy and national media attention lionizing Bergdahl immediately following his release on Saturday, supporters in Hailey insist they never regarded him as a hero.
“People in Hailey have been aware for some time that there were questions about how Bowe came to be captured, and that there was a chance that Bowe could be in trouble when he came home,” said Stefanie O’Neill, a co-organizer of a welcome-home rally planned for June 28.
“The celebration is going ahead. It is not being abridged in any way in light of the controversy that has arisen,” she told Reuters. “Our purpose was to bring Bowe back and to celebrate his return, and that has not changed … We wanted one of our own home.”
O’Neill and others said they were surprised by the intensity of the backlash stirred by allegations of desertion. They said the 28-year-old soldier, remembered in town as a somewhat bookish, but athletic loner, should be given the benefit of the doubt until he has a chance to address the claims against him.
“Bowe has been lynched without a trial,” said Lee Ann Goddard Ferris, a neighbor of the soldier’s family who has known Bergdahl’s father Bob for 35 years and describes herself as a conservative Republican. “These are good people. These are good and loyal Americans.”
The Army sergeant was flown over the weekend to a military hospital in Germany for a full physical and mental evaluation, and it was not clear whether he would return to Idaho by the end of the month.
“Right now, all I know is that Bowe is in Germany trying to recover,” said state Senator Michelle Stennett, a Democrat whose district includes his hometown. She added that she has received some emails from constituents expressing concern about her plans to speak at the June 28 rally.
“Until he has his say, we don’t have all sides. I’m open to hearing the whole dialogue,” she said.
YELLOW RIBBONS REMAIN
Signs of celebration remained very much in evidence in downtown Hailey, a town of about 8,000 residents just south of the upscale Sun Valley ski resort in central Idaho, a left-leaning political pocket in an otherwise overwhelmingly conservative state.
Although motorists have ceased their jubilant honking of car horns since Saturday, symbolic yellow ribbons were still tied to lamp posts and trees, and banners hung in shop windows bearing a photo of Bergdahl’s face and the slogan “Bowe is free at last.”
An upbeat atmosphere also pervaded at Zaney’s River Street Coffee House, which has long served as a hub for supporters, friends and family of Bergdahl.
Questions raised about the origins of his capture, meanwhile, have stoked a related controversy over the Obama administration’s decision to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners who had been held at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Critics of the swap have accused the administration of failing to give Congress sufficient advance notice of the exchange and suggested too high a price was paid in freeing senior Taliban commanders accused in deadly attacks on U.S. forces.
O’Neill, who is a Republican, said she believed the national furor over Bergdahl’s release was heavily politicized.
“If this were not a midterm election year, this would not be playing out the way it is,” she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Ken Wills)