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FEATURE REPORT

Bergdahl's hometown blindsided by hatred in wake of release — and it's not over yet

Sue Martin, owner of Zaney's River Street Coffee House in Hailey, Idaho, said residents were "blind-sided" by the criticism they received for supporting Bowe Bergdahl, a native of the city. But, she added, "We'll be all right. We're hardy mountain folk."

HAILEY, Idaho — The news cascaded through this verdant valley town of 8,000 people on a summer day a few years ago. Within hours, dozens of residents had gathered at Zaney’s River Street Coffee House, offering solace for a family in crisis.

They placed bouquets on the black iron benches beside the shop’s entrance and wrote sympathy messages on a handmade yellow poster taped to a front window. Their words eddied around a photo of a Hailey native son who had been taken away.

In 2006, the young man in the portrait was Zane Martin. Three years later, it was Bowe Bergdahl.

The first name is little known outside Hailey. The second needs little explanation. Yet in reaction to both calamities, those who live here wanted only to aid their own in a time of adversity, a theme largely absent from news reports about the city since the Bergdahl story erupted last month.

“Our motivation with Bowe has always been personal. It’s never been political,” said Sue Martin, who owns Zaney’s, and who found comfort in the town’s collective embrace after tragedy blew apart her life eight years ago. On July 3, 2006, her youngest son, Zane, with whom she opened the shop, died in a motorcycle accident on a twisty mountain road outside of town. He was 22.

The compassion of her fellow residents sustained Martin’s spirit. She carried on the business, and later hired Bergdahl as a barista before he joined the Army. “This community showed nothing but concern and kindness to my family,” she said, talking over a coffee grinder’s high whine as she prepared an Americano. “That’s what we’ve shown since everything began with Bowe.”

For bothering to care, the town was turned into a media piñata.

Before the Bergdahl saga, Hailey played the quiet, sensible sibling to Ketchum, a posh enclave 12 miles north, where the likes of Tom Hanks, Sen. John Kerry and Arnold Schwarzenegger own seven-figure vacation nests and carve turns at Sun Valley ski resort.

The past month has disfigured that inviting image. Hailey residents have seen their city branded as the birthplace of a soldier widely vilified as a deserter, a traitor and various unprintable words, and their support of him denounced as treasonous. As they worry about Bergdahl’s well-being and await his return to Hailey, their warmth toward outsiders has chilled. They wonder if, in the coming weeks, there will be more malice.

‘He’s one of ours’

No narrative from the longest war in U.S. history may be more familiar to Americans than that of Bergdahl.

He deployed to Afghanistan in February 2009; insurgents captured him that June. He was 23. They held him until last month, when President Barack Obama negotiated his release in exchange for five Taliban detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. He received medical care in Germany for several days before flying to Texas two weeks ago to continue his recovery at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Doctors have since begun treating him on an outpatient basis.

A Pentagon investigation in 2009 concluded that Bergdahl, promoted from private to sergeant during his five years in captivity, walked away from his unit’s outpost in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province. The reasons remain unclear, and he has admitted no wrongdoing in debriefings with Army officials. Several former members of his platoon have gone public to accuse him of desertion, with some claiming that as many as six soldiers died during missions to search for him in the weeks after he vanished. (The Army has assigned Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl to review the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture. His report is expected in August.)

In the days following his release, criticism of Bergdahl’s alleged actions and Obama’s decision to free the Taliban prisoners simmered on cable news and online. Pages named “Bowe Bergdahl is NOT a Hero!” and “Bowe Bergdahl is a Traitor” sprouted on Facebook and drew thousands of profanely supportive comments. Bursts of fury were sprayed across Twitter: “#BoweBergdahl should be hanged and Obama should be impeached,” wrote a woman who described herself as an Army veteran’s wife.

The vitriol soon boiled over and scalded Hailey. Nestled in the Wood River Valley of southern Idaho, a region of jagged geography that could double for Paktika, the town is at once tight-knit and laid-back. A liberal pocket in a conservative state, it is a place where the affluent and less so mingle without much friction, united in their craving for nature.

A mile-long stretch of Main Street serves as the city’s commercial artery, accented with outdoor gear stores and craft shops, burger joints and brew pubs. Along with yellow ribbons that ring trees and lampposts in Bergdahl’s honor, posters in storefronts bear his photo and exclaim “Bowe Is Free At Last!”

Organizers of the city’s annual “Bring Bowe Back” rally, learning of his imminent return to U.S. soil, announced plans in early June to recast the gathering as a celebration, switching to the upbeat slogan “Bowe Is Back.” A deluge of anger arrived in the form of phone calls and emails from across the country.

Many seethed over what they regarded as a “hero’s welcome” for a servicemember they believed deserved to face a firing squad. Some threatened to crash the event, scheduled for this weekend, and bring along a few thousand cohorts. An inflamed national debate related to Afghanistan, a rare occurrence during the 13-year war, had been unleashed on a town as unassuming as it was unsuspecting.

The organizers blinked. They scrubbed the rally and, reeling from the outrage, they and most of the area’s public officials withdrew from the media fray. Weary of the scrutiny, Martin, who has acted as a liaison for Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Jani, closed Zaney’s for two weeks and stopped giving interviews. The silence has failed to appease detractors, most of whom appear unaware that residents here refrained from referring to Bergdahl, now 28, as a hero throughout his ordeal and after his release.

Larry Schoen, a friend of Martin’s, belongs to the Blaine County Board of Commissioners. He stands alone among local officials in his willingness to talk with reporters about Bergdahl. A former TV news producer, he held a press conference two weeks ago to lament the “misguided rage” toward the soldier and his hometown, and he urged critics to “be patient and allow the military process to work.”

In an interview at his home on a 300-acre farm in nearby Picabo, where he lives with his wife and two children, Schoen explained that, as much as elsewhere, questions persist in Hailey about how Bergdahl wound up a prisoner of war. But along with the skepticism there exists empathy for him and his parents.

“The event itself as originally planned was to remind the world that he was a captive of the Taliban and not to forget him,” said Schoen, who moved to Idaho from New York 23 years ago.

“When he was released, that message of hope became a message of celebration. That seemed like a really logical transition. But it was misinterpreted to mean that we were somehow worshiping him as a hero. We’ve not labeled him a hero. What we’ve said is, ‘He’s one of ours, we care about him, we care about his family, we want him brought home safely.’”

Seeking to better understand his son’s circumstance, Bob Bergdahl grew a long beard common to Afghan tribal leaders, studied books on Afghanistan and learned Pashto, one of the country’s two primary languages. The derision aimed at him for his efforts has baffled Schoen.

“The idea that people would threaten the Bergdahls for doing what any parents would do — which is anything in their power to bring their son home safely — is unfathomable to us. And I suspect it’s unfathomable to most people,” he said.

Schoen frets that Bergdahl’s presumptive return to Hailey could again subject residents to what has felt like a nation’s wrath. Looking out a kitchen window at his fields and the mountains beyond, a tableau of serenity, he appealed for peace. “Enough with the attacks and threats — these are good people, America. Try to be just as compassionate as they are.”

Lingering bewilderment

Sue Martin has longed for her son since losing him in 2006. Yet as deep as her pain runs, she struggles to imagine the anguish that the Bergdahls endured, waiting five years for word of their son’s return. “Every day, every night, you would be thinking of him,” she said. “Every breath.”

Martin’s untiring advocacy on behalf of the family has elevated her to the status of unofficial mayor, with Zaney’s serving as rallying point and refuge for supporters. She never considered removing the signs hanging on the rust-red facade — “Standing With Bowe,” “Our Prayers Have Been Answered!”, “Welcome Home Bowe!” — while her shop was closed.

She reopened in mid-June after cleaning out spoiled milk, eggs and cheese from a pair of refrigerators that died during her absence. The WiFi signal crashed, too, so she called a technician to fix the problem. He worked on his laptop as customers drifted into the cafe.

There was a sense of fragile calm amid a lingering bewilderment. Residents were perplexed that, reflected in the media looking glass, their altruism had been portrayed as abetting the enemy.

“As a mother, I would get behind anyone who had a son in danger, no matter what the reason was,” said Robbin Warner, an administrative assistant with Hailey’s fire department. “That’s what we’ve done as a community. How is that so hard to understand?”

Stephen Poklemba walked in and greeted Martin with a smile. “Nice to have you back,” he said. A middle school teacher, he hopes that, in time, the Bergdahl family might find peace. “Think about what all of them have gone through the last five years,” he said. “Isn’t that cruel enough?” He has a similar wish that the town will be allowed to recapture its tranquility. “The whole thing has been blown out of proportion. This is a good place.”

Ted and Emily Morrison, a couple visiting from Tucson, Ariz., dropped by Zaney’s in a show of solidarity. “The easiest thing to do is to tear someone down,” said Ted Morrison, who served in the Navy for three years in the early 1960s. “Right now, in this country, everyone wants to see things in black and white, and Bowe Bergdahl is caught in the middle of all that.”

In a box stashed in a corner, Martin collects letters of encouragement from across the country. Some are addressed to Bergdahl. The warm sentiments provide a bulwark against the bile.

“We were blindsided,” she said. “But we’re pretty resilient. We’ll be all right. We’re hardy mountain folk.” She smiled. Then she offered no apologies for caring about Hailey’s long-lost native son. “We’re just glad he’s coming home. Period.”

kuz.martin@stripes.com
Twitter: @MartinKuz
 

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