It was the third text message from the unfamiliar number — the one that made direct reference to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — that frightened Sherry Horton. It was written in nearly unintelligible gibberish, but its tone was unmistakably menacing.
Horton had reason to be fearful: Hailey is the hometown of the American soldier who was vilified as a deserter and possibly even a traitor days after his release from Taliban captivity in May 2014 in a prisoner swap.
Here in Hailey, death threats soon followed — hundreds of calls to the Chamber of Commerce and to businesses owned by people who had most visibly supported Bergdahl, including the wine bar that Horton partly owns. The town canceled plans for a public celebration after a hostile biker gang and angry veterans’ groups threatened to disrupt it. A crude bomb filled with black powder was left outside a local business.
“We were put through the worst of it,” said Horton, who taught Bergdahl ballet and remains close with the soldier.
Such is the transformation of this small town in Blaine County, , where yellow ribbons were once wrapped around trees along Main Street and “Bring Bowe Home” stickers were plastered on car bumpers. The ribbons and stickers are mostly gone, except for a few tattered remains, and the five years that Hailey stood behind its hometown kid when he was held by the Taliban have given way to a distrust of outsiders and a bitterness about the hostile tenor of American politics.
There is a “mob mentality that’s been created and is being created,” said Lawrence Schoen, a commissioner of Blaine County. People in town have heard the demands of Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war, that Bergdahl be punished. People have also heard Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, regularly call Bergdahl “a dirty, rotten traitor” who should be executed or simply pushed from an airplane without a parachute.
The valley that surrounds Hailey is a relatively affluent and liberal sliver in a deeply conservative state, which added to the sense of being under siege in the immediate aftermath of Bergdahl’s release.
“There’s some really ignorant people who live some places in the West,” said Fritz Haemmerle, the mayor. “They’re very right wing, they’re very militant, they’re very uninformed and they’re people with guns and with an attitude.”
The harassment of people here may have tapered off since the weeks after Bergdahl was released, Schoen said, but the overall threat remains. “Am I concerned?” he said. “Yes. And is the level of threat serious? It is.”
There is also far more ambivalence about Bergdahl, who now faces a court-martial and a possible life sentence on charges of desertion and endangering troops stemming from his decision to leave his outpost in 2009, a move that led to his capture by the Taliban. In the five years Bergdahl was held, the exact circumstances of his capture remained unclear, and the people of Hailey embraced him.
People in town critical of Bergdahl’s actions did not want to be quoted, in part out of deference to his parents, Robert and Jani Bergdahl, who still live outside town. One man, Doug, who would not give his full name, said that if people found out that someone was bothering the Bergdahls, “no one here is going to talk to you about anything.”
Others say they are not happy that Bowe Bergdahl, who is on administrative duty at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, has become the town’s most well-known native son.
“This town’s been a town since about 1882,” Haemmerle said. “We’ve had people fight in probably every single war since that day. We’ve got dead people in our cemeteries, veterans, you name it, we have it.”
Hailey is still welcoming to outsiders, Horton insisted. “We rely on tourism here,” she said. “If we’re not friendly, we’re all going under.” But there are limits: “We don’t trust just anybody in this town anymore, not until we know what they’re about and why they want to know what they’re asking.”
Bergdahl’s parents, who were at the White House when President Barack Obama announced Bergdahl’s release, have not spoken publicly since their son was set free. Bergdahl’s father, in particular, was criticized for growing a beard, learning to speak Pashto and studying the Quran in hopes of finding a way to free his child.
Bergdahl, now 29, is not believed to have visited Hailey since his return to the United States. His only public comments have been featured in a podcast, Serial, whose second season is focused on his case. In it, Bergdahl said he walked off his outpost in hopes of hiking to a larger base about 18 miles away to tell a general about what he considered the dangerous incompetence of his commanding officers.
Bergdahl told the same story to Army investigators, who found it credible. Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, the lead investigator, said at a preliminary hearing in September that Bergdahl “had delusional expectations for his deployment. The general also said there was no evidence that Bergdahl, who identified with John Galt, the hero in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged,” intended to desert or that any soldiers had been killed while searching for him.