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Bergdahl backlash forces Idaho town to cancel celebration

Spenser Phau holds of a flag on July 22, 2009, during a vigil in Hailey, Idaho, for Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. The soldier was released from Taliban captivity in Afghanistan on May 31, 2014.

HAILEY, Idaho — The “Bowe is Back” celebration was shaping up to be a showdown, with protesters bombarding the city with angry phone calls and threatening to flood the tiny Central Idaho town during the annual June event, previously called “Bring Bowe Back.” “We just don’t have the facilities,” said Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter after a press release Wednesday announced the event’s cancellation.

The planned venue for the event was Hop Porter Park, which can accommodate up to 5,000, Gunter said. But it appeared to organizers and city officials that many more than that might show up.

“I received one call today from a (veterans group in California) that wanted to bring up 2,000 protesters,” Gunter said Wednesday afternoon. “They were asking about lawful assembly, and how we handle it.”

Gary Pringle, a resident of Lubbock, Texas, called the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday morning to warn that he was rallying hundreds of veterans to make a trip to Idaho.

“The people down here in Texas think all you folks in Idaho are ready to give this boy a hero’s welcome,” Pringle said. “If there’s a hero’s parade, we will be there. We’ll stop the parade.” Last year, the “Bring Bowe Back” gathering attracted 3,500 supporters, and organizers expected that to double with his return.

U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was born in Sun Valley, Idaho, and grew up in Hailey, was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years. He was released Saturday in exchange for five Taliban prisoners.

Public anger over the rare prisoner exchange — and questions about how Bergdahl fell into enemy hands — reached a fever pitch by Wednesday, even before the Taliban released video footage of Bergdahl’s release.

The Hailey Chamber of Commerce has received hundreds of phone calls this week, Chamber Membership Director Kristy Heitzman said. Most weren’t inquiring about local attractions.

“They say we’re kind of a disgrace, or what a shame it is to have a celebration for a traitor,” Heitzman said. “They say they had planned on coming to the area to go fishing or camping, but now they won’t be coming to Idaho.”

Several hotels in the area received room cancellations from travelers upset by the Bergdahl situation, Heitzman said. She said City Hall and the Hailey Police Department also received many angry calls.

The blowback was unexpected, Heitzman said.

“We thought it would be like (Olympic gold medalist and Hailey native) Kaitlyn Farrington coming back from the Olympics. We thought it was somebody coming home,” she said.

But the furor also appeared focused on Hailey. Sun Valley Resort, located about 14 miles north of Hailey, hadn’t received any complaints or cancellations Wednesday stemming from the Bergdahl news, resort spokeswoman Shannon Besoyan said. And the Idaho Department of Commerce didn’t seem worried about a larger effect on the state.

“We have not received any phone calls regarding the release of Bowe Bergdahl, nor do we have any concern about this impacting tourism in Idaho,” Megan Ronk, chief operating officer of the department, wrote in an email.

The annual Bergdahl gathering in Hailey was organized by community members who wanted to show support for the soldier’s parents. In a police vehicle, Gunter led a procession of motorcyclists (many from POW and MIA groups) from Jerome to Hailey each of the past four years.

“I’m a friend of the family, and we’ve worked through this together,” said Gunter, who has known the Bergdahls for more than 20 years.

Gunter said event organizers came to his office around noon Wednesday to notify him that they were canceling it. Soon after a press release was sent, the power in Hailey went out due to an unrelated issue — downed power lines north of Shoshone, Idaho Power said.

Local law enforcement agencies appeared to be outmanned this year.

Hailey is a 3 1/2-hour drive from Boise. The city, which has a population of about 8,000, has a police force of 17 officers. The county has the same number of sworn deputies and they cover 26,000 square miles, Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsey said.

Ramsey said the county has successfully hosted other large events, including a visit by the Dalai Lama in 2005 and the Special Olympic World Winter Games in 2009.
 

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