Ten days after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released from captivity in Afghanistan, his hometown of Hailey is quieting down. Even Zaney’s Café on River Street, which recently became a hub of activity for the international news media, has been closed for days.
Even so, tensions remain alive between Bergdahl’s supporters and detractors.
Bergdahl was freed on May 31 during a prisoner exchange that also freed five high-level Taliban leaders from a U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The circumstances of his capture remain unclear, even as more details emerge about the military base he disappeared from five years ago.
Some of Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers have claimed that he deserted his post before being captured. The military has set no date for his return from Germany to the U.S.
As the legality of a prisoner swap to secure Bergdahl’s release is debated in Washington, D.C., the FBI is investigating at least three emails sent last week to various groups and individuals in Hailey that carried death threats aimed at Bergdahl’s family.
“The people I have talked to about the death threats are appalled by it,” said Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen. “This is totally inappropriate and unjustified. Threats like this should not be made under any circumstances.”
The death threats were found among hundreds of angry emails sent to Hailey City Hall, the Hailey Chamber of Commerce, event organizers and business leaders, criticizing the city’s plan for a welcome home celebration for the soldier. The celebration was cancelled by event organizers and city leaders, citing safety concerns.
Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said the three death threats were brought to his attention Thursday by the Hailey Chamber of Commerce. Gunter forwarded them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
USA Today reported that FBI spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire said the agency is “working with our local law enforcement partners to investigate... .We take these types of threats seriously.”
Gunter would not elaborate on the details of the emails, nor would he discuss details of the hundreds of other critical messages that came to the city in the wake of Bergdahl’s release.
“I am going through them, and may send some of those on to the FBI also,” he said.
Gunter said Hailey has become quieter now that the initial news of Bergdahl’s release has faded, but that he remains vigilant over the security of the Bergdahl family.
"Twenty calls and emails from the Wood River Valley criticized the city’s support for Bergdahl"
Hailey City Administrator
“We are paying attention to what is going on, and looking out for any protests or anyone who may do violence to the Bergdahls,” Gunter said.
Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson said that by Tuesday about 500 calls and emails had come directly to City Hall over the Bergdahl affair, both negative and positive.
“There have been all types of communications from very positive in support of the Bergdahl family and angry that it was cancelled, to those who are angry that the event was even contemplated,” Dawson said.
Dawson said about 20 calls and emails from the surrounding Wood River Valley criticized the city’s support for Bergdahl’s homecoming celebration.
Debbie O’Neill and her daughter Stefanie O’Neill asked the city to cancel the “Welcome Back Bowe” event they had planned after numerous calls and emails came from across the country threatening to protest the event.
Stefanie O’Neill said she received a call at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday that she forwarded to Gunter due to its threatening tone. She said a picture on her website of Bob and Jani Bergdahl walking through sagebrush, used two weeks ago to publicize the Welcome Back Bowe event, drew a comment that disturbed her deeply.
“Someone posted, ‘That would be a good spot to bury them [the Berg-dahls],’” said O’Neill.
Yet, O’Neill said she remains undaunted in her support for the Bergdahl family.
“People assume we cancelled the event because there is too much controversy," she said. "It was a safety issue. There is also support for him from all over the country. We have received many positive calls and messages. The good is equal to the bad.”
O’Neill said she has not abandoned the idea of a celebration, though it could be smaller and will likely take place after Bowe Bergdahl returns to his family.
“We still plan to do something, but are not sure how big it will be,” she said. “Bowe is our hometown young man. One thing that is unique about the Wood River Valley is that we support our own.”
Polls show results on prisoner exchange
CNN television news reported Tuesday that 45 percent of people questioned in a CBS News poll said they disapprove of the prisoner exchange with 37 percent supporting the exchange and nearly 1 in 5 unsure.
The newspaper USA Today reported Monday that a Pew Research survey had similar findings, with 43 percent saying the release of five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was the wrong thing to do. Thirty-four percent said it was the right thing to do and nearly a quarter are unsure.
”Besides the expected partisan divide, both polls indicate a majority of military veterans disapprove of the deal,” CNN reported.