x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No hero’s welcome for Bergdahl as hometown cancels welcome party

Hailey Chamber of Commerce president Jane Drussel said the organisation had received hate mail and calls from people lambasting the town and branding Sgt Bergdahl un-American and a traitor.

HAILEY, IDAHO // Sgt Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown abruptly cancelled plans for a welcome-home celebration on Wednesday, citing security concerns over the prospect of big crowds – both for and against the soldier.

The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls over Sgt Bergdahl, whose release after five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan, has touched off a debate over whether the 28-year-old US soldier should be given a hero’s welcome or punished as a deserter.

In his hometown of Hailey, organisers of a celebration that had been scheduled for June 28 issued a statement saying the town doesn’t have the means to handle such an event – big crowds on both sides of the debate were expected to descend upon the city.

“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention, we don’t know what to expect,” police chief Jeff Gunter said.

The town has had an event called “Bring Bowe Back” for several years. When news broke over the weekend of Sgt Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, organisers announced there would be a welcome-home party instead.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce president Jane Drussel said the organisation had received hate mail and calls from people lambasting the town and branding Sgt Bergdahl un-American and a traitor.

“The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.

Sgt Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009.

Some of his former comrades have complained that US soldiers died during the search for him after he walked away. The military has not confirmed such a link but US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the army will review the case – he cautioned against drawing conclusions until then.

Lee Ann Ferris, a neighbour of the Bergdahls, said the town is trying not to pay attention to the criticism of the soldier and the talk about how he fell into Taliban hands.

“It’s like a modern-day lynching. He hasn’t even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what,” she said.

* Associated Press