A welcome-home party for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was canceled Wednesday after hundreds of calls and emails hit Hailey City Hall early this week criticizing the city’s support for the soldier, who was released by Taliban militants Saturday after nearly five years in captivity.
Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said the comments ranged from “thoughtful and articulate” to “vile and hateful.” The comments apparently reflect a rising tide of judgment that Bergdahl willingly walked away from his post in Afghanistan before he was captured, and that the search for him led to the deaths of fellow soldiers.
In response to the messages criticizing the city’s plans to hold a celebration on June 28, Haemmerle issued a news release Monday calling for restraint and sympathy for the Bergdahl family.
“The city of Hailey respectfully requests that people do not pre-judge this young man,” it states. “The city of Hailey believes in due process, and we are very happy to let the process unfold. In the meantime, our celebration will focus on Bowe Bergdahl’s release and the relief of his family and those who live here.”
By Wednesday, Haemmerle had canceled the June 28 celebration due to a surge of anti-Bergdahl sentiment that threatened to bring thousands of protestors to Hailey.
“In the interest of public safety, the event will be canceled,” the press release stated. “Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become.”
Hailey resident Debbie Oneill and her daughter Stefanie Oneill had been planning the event since November, changing its theme to “Bowe Is Back” when Bergdahl was released.
Debbie Oneill said plans included the release of 1,825 balloons into the sky, one for every day that Bowe had been held in captivity. The soldier’s parents, Bob and Jani Bergdahl, and top politicians were scheduled to speak. Musician Carole King was scheduled to perform for free.
Yet by Tuesday, many sponsors and supporters were leaving in droves, apparently no longer willing to participate in what had become a controversial event. Debbie Oneill said she received threatening emails from Bergdahl detractors.
“One of them said there will be ‘consequences’ if we proceed,” she said.
Norco, a medical supply company, was going to supply helium for the balloons at the event. “They told us to remove them from our website immediately, with no explanation. Their email wasn’t very nice,” she said.
Then the Idaho Pageant pulled Miss Idaho, Sarah Downs, from the event.
“They told us it was too political,” Oneill said.
She said that by Thursday, she had removed 95 percent of the content on her “bringboweback2014” website.
“Our mission was to keep his name in front of the government to get him freed. We accomplished what our mission states.”
Oneill said that after speaking with Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter, she understood that cancellation was the best option. She said Gunter told her he was contacted by an anti-Bergdahl group from California requesting a permit to have 2,000 protestors come to Hailey for the event.
“We felt we could not put this burden on the city, and that we could not put the residents of the Wood River Valley through it all,” she said. “It would not have been the right thing to do. We didn’t know if it would be a peaceful protest.”
Oneill said her feelings for the Bergdahl family are unchanged.
“My feelings and the feelings of my family are that we stand with Bowe, and we will continue to support the Bergdahl family,” she said. “The media has tried Bowe even before he has had a chance to tell his story.”
On Wednesday, Carole King said on MSNBC that reports about Bergdahl’s possibly deserting his post do not diminish her support for him, and the Obama administration’s decision to exchange him for five Taliban detainees.
“All the things we are finding out don’t change a thing for me,” King said. “People experience PTSD in many different ways. Maybe some of the behavior they are talking about came from that. It’s a hellish situation.’
Rumors had been circulating that Rolling Thunder, a national nonprofit motorcycling organization dedicated to raising awareness about American prisoners of war, no longer supports Bergdahl.
“That is simply not true,” said Tom D’Allessio, chair of the board of Rolling Thunder, in an interview. “We have no comment at all about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s captivity. Our mission was to keep his name in front of the government to get him freed. We accomplished what our mission states.”
Negative calls about Bergdahl were also answered at the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance office 12 miles north of Hailey in Ketchum. The office is also known by its “Visit Sun Valley” website.
“We have received some very emotional phone calls from people with strong feelings, and not always expressed in the most polite ways,” said Arlene Schieven, Marketing Alliance president and CMO.
Schieven said on Wednesday that “a handful a day” of phone calls have been coming it, some of which had to be ended due to the callers’ use of “inappropriate language.”
“There have been a wide variety of comments,” she said, “some from people who lost loved ones in search for the soldier, or responding to what they have heard in the media.”
She added that “no reservations have been canceled yet.”
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Media frenzy erupts in Hailey
CBS, ABC, Al Jazeera America, National Public Radio—these are but a few of the media organizations that have been camped at Zaney’s café in Hailey this week to get stories about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.