This northern Rocky Mountains town, home to Bowe Bergdahl, went back to work Monday knowing it was one step closer to being whole again.
Bergdahl, the last remaining prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was finally a free man. The development came following a controversial detainee exchange by the Obama administration that saw the 28-year-old Army sergeant released late last week, along with five Taliban extremists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For five years, since Bergdahl was captured in 2009 near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, this town of 7,000 residents just a few miles down the road from the upscale Sun Valley resort had kept up hope that this day would come.
As the months and years dragged by with little or no word on the young soldier’s condition or circumstances, they staged rallies and hung yellow ribbons throughout the north woods town. They talked among themselves, gave the family their much-needed privacy. And they waited.
All for this day, this feeling that Bergdahl was free.
“Everybody’s talking about it – people who don’t even live here. It’s crazy,” 22-year-old hotel worker Adam Marks told the Los Angeles Times. “I never knew the guy, but I know a lot of people who did. And they are just so excited. How often does this happen? Someone snatched by the enemy in a foreign land and then they’re let go?
“The conditions he must have endured. There were times I lost faith that he was even alive, that he would ever make it home. But a lot of people here didn’t lose their faith at all.”
Still, the Monday headline in the local Idaho Statesman newspaper hinted at the task ahead for both Bergdahl’s family and the town that supported them: “It’s just beginning,” it read.
On Sunday, Bergdahl’s parents gave an emotional press conference in Boise after returning from Washington and a meeting with President Obama.
Bob Bergdahl, a former UPS deliveryman who grew his hair and beard in solidarity with his missing son, likened Bowe’s return to U.S. society like that of a deep-sea diver who risks illness and even death if he surfaces too fast.
He also compared the remote mountainous country where his son was taken prisoner to the town he came from – a place with peaks and deserts, where people worked hard and cared for their family and loved ones.
In Hailey on Monday, the yellow ribbons and posters and come-home-soon wishes for the missing soldier were still there. Just like the last five years, Bowe Bergdahl was everywhere – and nowhere – at once.
But people are content to let the young man who was raised here and worked various jobs around town before joining the military get well and come home in one physical and emotional piece.
“Patience is really important now,” Sue Martin, owner of Zaney’s coffeehouse, told The Times. Bowe Bergdahl once waited on customers here, and the place quickly became a central gathering spot for the effort to keep up hopes for his return.
“None of us knows when he’ll be back,” she added as TV trucks cast a shadow on her front door, with reporters and cameramen elbowing one another for her attention. “He’s safe now. That’s all we need to know.”
As Hailey celebrates, a furor is growing in Washington, with critics questioning the Obama administration’s decision to conduct the prisoner exchange without first alerting Congress.
White House officials said they had to act fast in light of Bergdahl’s deteriorating health. But some Republican critics say the move would embolden insurgents to kidnap other American soldiers or civilians to trade for more Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
There is also speculation that Bergdahl willingly walked away from his unit, casting a shadow that he was an Army deserter who could possibly face charges for his actions.
But in Hailey – a town with a mix of wealth, celebrity and working class, where actors and entrepreneurs say hello to people who struggle to pay the rent – many say they don’t care about any of that.
“This is a liberal town – many people were not in favor of that war to begin with,” Martin said. “It’s a place blessed to go about its business in the woods and not have to be concerned with what is going on in the outside world. But the outside world came to us with Bowe’s capture.”
She said Bergdahl kept in touch with other coffeehouse workers via email after being shipped to Afghanistan. At first, his words described the beauty of the country and the friendliness of the people.
But then the tone changed. “He thought he was going to Afghanistan to help people,” Martin said. “But after he got there he soon realized that he wasn’t in the position to help. And that frustrated him.”
In Hailey, nobody is pointing fingers at an idealistic youth who might have suddenly felt trapped. Did he walk away from his unit? Was his capture a mistake?
“There’s a lot of controversy on the Internet,” Marks said. “People are saying he’s a traitor and that he deserted his post. But everybody here is just happy he’s coming home.”
“This has been a very personal five years for this town. It’s not political for us. But we understand that it is political for some people.”
She also spoke of an irony that has been much discussed in Hailey.
“It’s ironic that Bowe Bergdahl was held captive for five years, in a way, for the right of people back home in the U.S. to be able to voice their opinions in a free society,” she said. “But now many of those opinions are critical of Bowe. I think he’d be OK with that.”