Politician speaks out in defense of Bowe Bergdahl's hometown
By John M. Glionna | Los Angeles Times | Published: June 12, 2014
Just the other day, the mammoth CNN satellite truck finally moved out from the front of Zaney’s coffee house. But the reporters are still here in the isolated mountain town of Hailey, Idaho.
They’re lurking between parked cars, rushing up to residents as they run errands at the pharmacy and grocery store, seeking their opinions on the fate of one of their own, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for five years and released last month as part of a controversial White House-orchestrated prisoner swap.
What do folks here think about the case, the reporters want to know. Is Bergdahl a hero or a deserter? And what, while they’re at it, is their take on other world events?
Then there are the violent threats that have been made against Bergdahl's family as well as city officials — calls and emails that have been turned over to the FBI for investigation.
On Wednesday, Larry Schoen decided that he’d had enough. The Blaine County commissioner called an impromptu news conference on the lawn of the county courthouse — an event attended by as many as 20 reporters — to talk about a small town that has come under siege.
His message: The community supports Bergdahl as a U.S. soldier and native son who languished in enemy hands for five years. They are not treating him like any hero; no more than they would any young-man-turned-soldier. They just want him to come home.
And, another thing, they also support Bergdahl’s father, Bob, who has been lambasted by media critics nationwide for growing a beard and learning an Afghan language in support of his son.
Schoen, 58, is a man caught in the middle. As a former television news producer, he understands that the Bergdahl case is a major ongoing story involving American foreign policy and political divisions in Washington.
He knows that the story will continue, and that at every juncture, the reporters will want comment. He knows they will probably want town comment when Bergdahl leaves hospital in Germany and returns Friday to a U.S. military hospital in San Antionio.
“But I’m not in the news business anymore — I’m a county commissioner and I’m determined to speak up for the people who live in this community,” he said. “People around here have told me, ‘Larry, just keep your mouth shut and let the media go away.’ But I know the media doesn’t work that way. Reporters are anxious for people to speak for the community.”
In his brief news conference, the father of two school-age children asked Americans not to rush to judgment on Bergdahl. “Be patient and allow the military process to work,” he told reporters.
“Let’s remember, there’s a political side to this and a human side," he said in a phone interview. “I was speaking form the human side.”
Schoen said Hailey had canceled a homecoming celebration for Bergdahl because of outsiders who didn’t understand either the town or its 7,000 mostly close-knit residents.
“The community had planned to hold an event — just as it did last year when Bowe was still a prisoner,” he said. “We did it last year to remind our elected leaders in Washington that we had a native son who was captive on the battlefield and we didn’t want them to forget him. We wanted to see him reunited with his family.”
He added: “For that you seek publicity. When Bowe was released, it seemed logical to turn a message of hope into one of celebration. Then all this controversy erupted.”
He added that there is division among some in the community as well, mostly anger from service veterans who think that Bergdahl should be punished for possibly abandoning his post before his capture.
“Everybody who puts on a uniform is a hero, as far as I’m concerned,” Schoen told The Times.
He said the community was frustrated by threats made to Bergdahl’s parents.
“That’s just unacceptable,” he said. “The Bergdahls did what any parents in their situation would be expected to do. They gave unconditional love to their child. They tried to let him know they’d do anything to bring him home from a situation like that.”
For that, he said, the elder Bergdahl, a former UPS driver here, has been “criticized, even ridiculed and threatened.”
After Bergdahl learned Pashto and grew a long beard, one TV commentator took issue. “He said Bob looked like a Muslim, as though that was some sort of jeer,” Schoen said. “But Bob was clear about all those things: He wanted to understand some of what was happening to his son. He was in solidarity with his son’s captivity.
“How can you fault a parent for doing that?”
But Schoen called Hailey “a community under stress,” invaded by reporters from all over the world, many of whom refuse to go home. “After a while, people just were shocked over the negative attention being paid to this story,” he said. “People want to resume their normal lives. Many of them wish the media would just go away. They're tired of being vilified for supporting one of our own and his family.”
Nobody knows when Bowe Bergdahl will return home to Hailey.
But they do know this: When he does, Hailey — and the international news media —will be here waiting for him.