Stunned by uproar, Hailey backs Bergdahl

Calls and emails to the town 'range from expressing strong support to negative comments,' an official says

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 6, 2014 

HAILEY - Lindy Brewer shook her head outside the Hailey Public Library on Thursday, thinking about the furor that has erupted since Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released Saturday by the Taliban after nearly five years in captivity.

"I think it's ridiculous that people are criticizing him and he hasn't even gotten back to the United States yet," said Brewer, a Hailey resident. "It's annoying."

Residents of the Wood River Valley, where Bergdahl grew up before joining the Army, are happy he is free and receiving medical care at a military hospital in Germany. Brewer and others said they wish people would withhold judgment about Bergdahl until he returns to the United States and more is known about why he left his camp in Afghanistan before he was captured. Some people, including some of Bergdahl's fellow soldiers, have labeled him a deserter or traitor.

Bellevue resident Kevin Ware said so much of what is being talked about seems to be speculation.

"Everyone has mixed emotions," Ware said. "No one knows the full story."

Even in Hailey there are differences of opinion, said Daniel Sabin, a resident.

"Some people are mad about Bergdahl. Others are just happy he's back," he said.

City Administrator Heather Dawson said City Hall has been inundated with phone calls and emails. She said workers are fielding about 100 calls a day, and she still had 115 unopened emails Thursday morning.

City officials shared the concerns of the organizers of the "Bowe is Back" celebration, planned for later this month, that the event could be overrun by supporters and protesters. Organizers canceled the event Wednesday.

Previous "Bring Back Bowe" celebrations each attracted between 1,000 and 1,500 people to Hop Porter Park. Costs, including security, were paid by the sponsoring group, not the city.

Organizers believed several times that many people would have attended the event on June 28, which was to have featured a performance by singer Carole King, who owns a ranch in the nearby White Cloud Mountains.

"There was no way to know how many people would have showed up for that," Dawson said.

"Bowe is Free at Last" posters with Bergdahl's photo still blanket most businesses in town. The yellow ribbons wrapped around trees, stop signs and fence posts remain. Even a dinosaur standing watch outside a sandwich shop on Main Street has a ribbon around its neck.

For decades, Hailey was known mostly as the home for service workers who commuted for jobs in the more expensive towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley to the north. That changed more than a decade ago, said Dawson, who grew up in Hailey.

Power Engineering, which works on electrical generation projects around the world, is headquartered here now. The town is home to most of Blaine County's schools and many hotels, retail stores and utility companies, Dawson said.

"It's really quiet and community-oriented," a good place to raise children, Sabin said. "There's a lot of hikers and bikers here."

Residents still say they weren't prepared for the national backlash.

"They didn't expect Hailey to be in the middle of it," Sabin said.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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