Bergdahl’s home town bewildered by public backlash
Freed US army Taliban captive represented as traitor by US media
Signs of support with images of Bowe Bergdahl outside Zaney’s coffee shop in the US army sergeant’s home town, Hailey, Idaho. Photograph: Reuters/Patrick Sweeney
For five years, the coffee shop in Hailey, Idaho, where Bowe Bergdahl used to work kept a light on. It was a symbol of remembrance, and hope.
The lamp still burned on Thursday, a discreet glow from a corner cabinet, but in the week since his release from captivity, it has become all but forgotten as a harsh, probing spotlight beamed on Bergdahl, his family and the town of Hailey.
An event for which this small Idaho community prayed and yearned and campaigned, an event expected to herald joyful catharsis, instead has turned into accusation and rancour. The town is bewildered, and the yellow ribbons, balloons and banners proclaiming “free at last”, “mission accomplished” and “welcome home Bowe” on windows, poles and trees appear more defiant than festive.
“It’s so vicious. We’ve been blindsided,” said Sue Martin, a spokesperson for the Bergdahls who employed Bowe as a barista at Zaney’s coffee house before he joined the army. “We knew there would be some stuff about [him] walking off the base but this controversy . . .” her voice trailed off.
On Wednesday, the town cancelled a welcome home celebration planned for later this month, citing security concerns amid a deluge of angry, and in some cases threatening, messages from around the country.
“They say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Kristy Heitzman, a director of the chamber of commerce, said. “The blowback was unexpected. We thought it would be like Kaitlyn Farrington coming back from the Olympics,” she said, referring to the snowboarder who won gold at Sochi.
Hotels that typically host hikers, fishermen and hunters have reported cancellations. Even with the celebration abandoned, there is concern that some protesters could travel to this rural community of 7,000 people to vent their anger.
“To have all these people phoning up and screaming, I mean, really?” said Chip Deffe, who runs a bike shop where Bergdahl’s father works as a mechanic. Like many here, Deffe does not own a television, but heard about what was being said on Fox News and other outlets. “A bunch of armchair quarterbacks. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
He echoed the prevailing view here: support the family, sympathise with a young man who has suffered a terrible ordeal, and await an investigation into Bergdahl’s alleged desertion before judging his actions.
President Barack Obama invited Bob and Jani Bergdahl to the White House for last Saturday’s announcement that their 28-year-old son had been freed in a swap for five senior Taliban figures who were detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans lambasted the White House for not giving Congress 30 days’ notice of the freeing of the detainees, as required by law, and said the five militants could endanger American lives despite a condition of the deal that requires them to remain in Qatar under supervision for a year.
The White House, and Hailey, were unprepared for a third, visceral objection to the deal: that Bergdahl was a deserter, or even a traitor. That he was not worth it.
The claim has stunned a community who knew him not as a pale spectre in Taliban videos but as the tall, affable young man who served coffee and deftly fended off jokes about Billy Elliot – he did ballet along with karate, fencing, paragliding and mountain biking.
The idea that Bergdahl may have walked off his base before falling into Taliban hands in June 2009 was not news. Rolling Stone magazine published critical testimonies from former comrades in 2012. But the force with which those accusations were recycled and amplified gave Hailey a crash course in US political polarisation and media saturation.
“Fox has been horrible. I’m a conservative but I’m disgusted by how they’re trashing him,” said Lee Ann Ferris, an interior designer who lives near the Bergdahls’ wood cabin five miles out of town. “It’s a modern-day lynch mob.”
Ferris said she had heard from a friend that the freed Taliban fighters were has-beens and no longer a threat to the US. “I’m told they’re too old to do what they’d like.” She acknowledged this was based on speculation.
Sherry Horton, who taught Bergdahl ballet and shared a house with him before he joined the army, said media depictions of him were a travesty. “We want the world to know that Bowe is not just the Bowe they’re showing on TV.”
The community is especially pained that Bob and Jani Berghdahl – believed to be at home, avoiding the media glare – have been portrayed as un-American oddballs.
For 28 years, Bob was the UPS guy, pausing for chats as he delivered packages; a cleanshaven, outdoorsy neighbour who accompanied his wife to a Presbyterian church every Sunday.
Physically similar to his son, at first he grew his beard to match Bowe’s growing facial hair on proof-of-life videos to try to verify recording dates, said Deffe.
Later it became a symbol of solidarity with his son and a way to connect with the captors. “Pashtun tribal culture is based on respect. He wanted to show he was an elder,” said Martin, the cafe owner. Asked if it helped with negotiations, she shrugged. “Who knows? It certainly didn’t do any harm.”
In this new phase of the Bergdahl story, where diplomacy has given way to politicking and public opinion, the beard is now a source of scorn and suspicion outside Hailey. Privately, many townspeople expressed hope he shaves it off, and soon.
– (Guardian service)