The controversy over whether the U.S. should have traded five members of the Taliban for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl reached all the way to Hailey, Idaho, on Wednesday, as the soldier’s hometown canceled its celebration of his freedom amid threats and security worries.
Bergdahl, captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and held by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network for nearly five years, was exchanged for five high-level Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Saturday. Critics say that the five could return to terrorism, and that the trade has endangered other soldiers by implying that the U.S. would make other trades.
In addition, some soldiers who served with Bergdahl have accused him of deserting his post. They contend that he was captured because he walked away, and that other Americans were killed or hurt as they searched for him.
Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle told the Los Angeles Times that the town had been deluged with calls and letters of complaint that it was honoring a deserter. The event had been intended as a private celebration, he said, but the organizers decided it was too provocative considering the bitter national dialogue.
“The police chief is aware of the types of people who have threatened to come up and protest this thing,” Haemmerle said. “We’re a town of 8,000 people. The last thing we want is trouble.”
So Haemmerle said he asked the chief to talk to the organizers.
“For better or worse, there are people who blame Bowe for the deaths of other soldiers who searched for him. If that’s true, it’s just tragic,” he said. “We don’t need any more people to get hurt. I don’t think Bowe’s family needs that. It’s not in anyone’s best interests.”
Business in this resort town in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains was suffering even before the cancellation of the party, which had been planned for June 28.
The Chamber of Commerce received hundreds of complaints after promoting the event on its Facebook page. Many businesses complained that customers disappeared after the controversy erupted.
Chamber membership director Kristy Heitzman told the Idaho Statesman newspaper that many of the angry callers were veterans. One said he was a trucker who planned to stop in Hailey to dump his trash, she told the newspaper.
The celebration would have replaced the town’s annual “Bring Bowe Back” event, which was a way to remind the town and the government that he had not been forgotten.
Bergdahl, 28, remained in stable condition at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he was flown after his release.
The Pentagon has promised an investigation into whether Bergdahl deserted, but has stopped short of promising to review assertions that other soldiers died as a result.
“At the appropriate time, we will conduct a thorough, transparent and complete review of the circumstances surrounding his capture,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Wednesday.