Backlash cancels Hailey's celebration of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's return

newsroom@idahostatesman.comJune 4, 2014 

Signs noting Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's release hang on the front of Zaneys Coffee Shop in Hailey. Bowe Bergdahl worked at Zaneys on and off for two years. Bowe was serving with an Alaska-based infantry regiment in Afghanistan when he disappeared on June 30, 2009. It was later found that he had been captured by the Taliban. Bergdahl, 28, was the only American held as a prisoner in the Afghanistan war.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

The “Bowe is Back” celebration was shaping up to be a showdown, with protesters bombarding Hailey with angry phone calls and threatening to flood the tiny Central Idaho town during the annual June event, previously called “Bring Bowe Back.”

“We just don’t have the facilities,” Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said Wednesday after a news release announced the event’s cancellation.

The planned venue for the event was Hop Porter Park, which can accommodate up to 5,000, Gunter said. But it appeared to organizers and city officials that many more than that might show up.

“I received one call today from a (veterans group in California) that wanted to bring up 2,000 protesters,” Gunter said. “They were asking about lawful assembly, and how we handle it.”

Gary Pringle, a resident of Lubbock, Texas, called the Statesman on Wednesday morning to say that he was rallying hundreds of veterans to make a trip to Idaho.

“The people down here in Texas think all you folks in Idaho are ready to give this boy a hero’s welcome,” Pringle said. “If there’s a hero’s parade, we will be there. We’ll stop the parade.”

Last year’s “Bring Bowe Back” gathering attracted 3,500 supporters, and organizers expected that to double with his safe return.

AN UPROAR

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was born in Sun Valley and grew up in Hailey, was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years. He was released Saturday in exchange for five Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay.

Public anger over the rare prisoner exchange — and questions about how Bergdahl fell into enemy hands — reached a fever pitch by Wednesday, even before the Taliban released video footage of Bergdahl’s release.

The Hailey Chamber of Commerce has received hundreds of phone calls this week, Chamber Membership Director Kristy Heitzman said. Most weren’t inquiring about local attractions.

“They say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame it is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Heitzman said. “They say they had planned on coming to the area to go fishing or camping, but now they won’t be coming to Idaho.”

Several hotels in the area received room cancellations from travelers upset by the Bergdahl situation, Heitzman said. She said City Hall and the Hailey Police Department also received many angry calls.

The blowback was unexpected, Heitzman said.

“We thought it would be like (gold medalist and Hailey native) Kaitlyn Farrington coming back from the Olympics. We thought it was somebody coming home,” she said.

SUN VALLEY OK

But the furor appeared focused on Hailey. Sun Valley Resort, located about 14 miles north, had not received any complaints or cancellations Wednesday stemming from the Bergdahl news, resort spokeswoman Shannon Besoyan said. And the Idaho Department of Commerce didn’t seem to be worried about a larger effect.

“We have not received any phone calls regarding the release of Bowe Bergdahl, nor do we have any concern about this impacting tourism in Idaho,” Megan Ronk, COO of the department, wrote in an email.

The annual Bergdahl gathering in Hailey was organized by community members who wanted to show support for the soldier’s parents, Bob and Jani. In a police vehicle, Gunter led a procession of motorcyclists (many from POW and MIA groups) from Jerome to Hailey each of the past four years.

“I’m a friend of the family, and we’ve worked through this together,” said Gunter, who has known the Bergdahls for more than 20 years.

Gunter said event organizers came to his office around noon Wednesday to notify him that they were canceling it. Soon after a news release was sent, the power in Hailey went out due to an unrelated issue — downed power lines north of Shoshone, Idaho Power said.

Hailey is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Boise. The city, which has a population of about 8,000, has a police force of just 17 officers. The county has the same number of sworn deputies, who cover 26,000 square miles, Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey said.

Ramsey said the county has successfully hosted other large events, including a visit by the Dalai Lama in 2005 and the Special Olympics World Winter Games in 2009.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413, Zach Kyle: 377-6464

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service