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Despite attacks, Bergdahl's home town stands by its son

Jun. 9, 2014 - 06:34PM   |  
A sign welcomes motorists on Highway 75 in Hailey, Idaho. Hailey is the hometown of former prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
A sign welcomes motorists on Highway 75 in Hailey, Idaho. Hailey is the hometown of former prisoner of war, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. (Michael Chow for USA Today)
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HAILEY, IDAHO — After blowing in the wind, yellow ribbons get torn and frayed. Not unlike emotions in the Wood River Valley.

The past week began with unfettered jubilation at the news May 31 that local boy Bowe Bergdahl, 28, had been released from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan after five years. But joy soon turned to shock. Calls and e-mails blasted locals for planning a celebration June 28 for an Army sergeant who may have walked off his base and whose release involved the Obama administration trading five Taliban leaders.

The party was canceled, and saddened residents went quiet.

Over the weekend, many here and in neighboring Ketchum principal towns in a rural county the size of Delaware with 22,000 people declined to share their feelings, concerned that outsiders and even some neighbors might attack.

A number relented, including Bergdahl's former roommate and a key town organizer, to deliver a simple message: Don't judge until the Army completes its inquiry, and let us help a family member come home and heal.

"All the criticism we've received just makes me more determined (to stand by him)," says Sherry Horton, who shared a house with Bergdahl for three years until he decamped for the Army in 2008 and was his ballet teacher for five years.

"I don't know what really happened that day (he was captured in 2009), no one does," she says. "Friends make bad decisions. But he's still my friend."

Jane Drussel wears her weariness with grace. After media published images of her hanging "Welcome Home Bowe" signs at her shop, Jane's Artifacts, she started receiving threatening e-mails and calls. As president of the Chamber of Commerce, she decided to send all chamber calls to voicemail.

"I'm tired, and I'm starting to get a little angry at the negativity," she says. "We're just a small community that cares about those who go out and fight for us. For us to be criticized because we care, that's not right. They're calling our town a traitor town. That's offensive. We are all about family here."

Among the comments on a Bring Bowe Home Facebook page: "Are you all in Hailey wack-a-doodle? So nice to know an entire town in the United States are (sic) supporting a traitor and deserter."

Drussel says that's mild in comparison with what she's seen. In contrast, she points to a bouquet of flowers sent by a family in Texas, along with a note reading, "I wanted to let you know that there are plenty of us out here who respect Bowe for his service and sacrifice, regardless of the extenuating circumstances ... there is no good reason for people to be so mean and hateful."

Strolling the aisles of Jane's Artifacts with her three children is Sherri Ditch, a recent transplant from Seattle. Ditch is visibly upset as she defends her new hometown.

"Let's say something positive about people who love and support their community members, let's talk about that," she says. "Everyone has each other's back here, and that's not something you see often. It's something special. And until we know what happened (with Bergdahl), people shouldn't be passing judgment."

A few streets away, Sondra Van Ert, owner of Baldy Sports, laments how events "have turned a positive thing into a negative thing. But at least this will be a good place for Bowe to try and reintegrate, a place the world will leave him alone."

In many ways, Hailey feels like an America that lives mostly in memory.

The main street is called Main Street. Everyone really does know each other's name. At night, stores shutter early, and thrift shops leave their wares out unattended.

Take an evening stroll, and all you hear are the hiss of sprinklers and the wind rustling the leaves on the cottonwood trees. Go for a hike, and you feel like you're the only human on the planet.

When bad things happen, such as last year's dangerous Beaver Creek fire, residents rally. When good things happen, such as skier Picabo Street's Olympic triumph in 1998, everyone feels like they were draped with the gold medal.

"That town is filled with the kindest, most decent people I've ever met," says Matt Farwell, who spent time in Hailey and with the Bergdahls while helping Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings report his 2012 feature, the first to suggest Bergdahl may have walked off his base.

"These are simply people who love life and love the privilege of living in this country," Farwell says. "And Bowe comes from that."

That tight-knit nature explains why the town's 7,000 residents are defensive when it comes to Bob and Jani Bergdahl. It also explains why they're often reluctant to air opinions when there is no place to hide.

Sue Martin, long an outspoken Bergdahl supporter, was no longer at her eatery, Zaney's River Street Coffee House, where Bergdahl once worked. A sign on the door refers all media requests to the Blaine County commissioner. Chip Deffe recently told British reporters how Bob Bergdahl, who sometimes works at Deffe's Sun Summit South shop, was a top cyclist who was devastated when his Olympic hopes were dashed by President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow games in 1980. Now he waves off an interview request with a shake of his head.

"There's an element of, 'How will my neighbor feel about what I think,' " says Jason Fry, CEO of the YMCA in Ketchum, down the road from Sun Valley, a resort known for celebrity homeowners such as Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger and the annual Allen & Co. confab of business elites.

Fry approached a number of military veterans on USA Today's behalf, but none wanted to comment. "One man said, 'I don't think he'll like what I have to say,' " says Fry, who is very clear on the Bergdahl matter.

"As a local who has lived with Bowe's absence for five years, it's incredible news that he's coming home," he says. "As for the rest, I consider that a workplace issue between an employee and his employer, the Army."

Fry concedes that he and his wife developed an early empathy for the Bergdahls. Bob Bergdahl is Fry's UPS driver, and "when we were pregnant with our first child, it was right about when Bowe was captured, and here he was delivering gifts for our kid. We wondered how that must feel for him."

The Bergdahls, who home-schooled Bowe and his sister Sky outside town, couldn't be reached for comment. Col. Timothy Marsano, who has handled media for the family since 2009, says simply, "We in the military have no intention of abandoning this family."

Bergdahl remains at a German U.S. Army outpost undergoing tests and questioning after video footage showed a shaky and thin captive. There is no set date for the soldier to return to Hailey.

When he does, "I'm sure he'll take refuge with his family, who are private people, but I also hope he'll be greeted in town by smiles and a handshake," says Larry Schoen, Blaine County commissioner.

"Like everywhere, I'm sure people here are asking what he did, and did people die looking for him" as some Army personnel have charged in the wake of Bergdahl's release, he says. "But in the end, we are a tightknit community. We are a reflection of America at large."

Greg Foley, editor of the twice-weekly Idaho Mountain Express, says the Bergdahl story is by far the biggest his paper has covered in decades (most recent headline: "Hailey cancels Bergdahl celebration in face of political firestorm").

"Over the five years, there's been a lot of support in this valley for the Bergdahls, from ribbons to motorcycle rallies," he says. "Before the release, there was 100 percent unity, but now that's changed a bit. I'd say the story continues to evolve. What's very clear, though, is that for the Bergdahls this is the beginning of the road, not the end."

Indeed, this tumultuous week and its attendant passions and even vitriol will soon pass. Residents are looking to that next chapter.

"I think this town will be fine, I just hope Bowe is, too," says Sally Kern who, when she isn't raising golden retriever puppies, is busy sewing wind socks at her in-home shop, Kernworks. A sign on the door urges customers to take anything they like and simply leave a check or cash in her mail slot.

"I hope Bowe can shoulder this re-entry," she says softly. "To be captive is one thing. To have a lot of America turn against you, that's hard to handle."

Some time back, a Wood River Valley regular wrote a short story about a young enlisted man coming back from an overseas conflict and his attempts to pick up his life: "He had tried to keep his life from being complicated. He wanted his life to go smoothly. It had just gotten going that way. Well, that was all over now, anyway."

When Ernest Hemingway wrote that passage in Soldier's Home in 1925, he was beginning to explore the scars of war and its aftermath. Much like this soldier's home.

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