A Bozeman, Mont., Soldier, Who Served in Same Unit As Bergdahl Had, Reports What Comrades Knew, While Bowe’s Home Town Gives Him a Pass
BY PAT HILL
HAILEY, Idaho—This small Idaho town just south of the Sun Valley ski resort was in the international news when a huge wildfire threatened to engulf the town last fall, but recently Hailey found itself under fire of another sort, as the international media swept into the normally peaceful mountain town after one of its native sons was released from Taliban captivity after five years.
Twenty-eight-year-old U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released by the Taliban on Saturday, May 31, in exchange for five senior Taliban prisoners who were being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the United States. Bergdahl was a member of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, home-based in Fort Richardson, Alaska. His unit deployed to Afghanistan in May of 2009, and on June 30 Bergdahl disappeared from their outpost at Mest-Malik, where they were conducting counterinsurgency operations. Controversial questions surrounded Bergdahl’s disappearance from the start, but in the town of Hailey, that controversy has taken a back seat to concern about the captive soldier’s well-being and ultimate fate.
Zaney’s coffeehouse in Hailey, where Bergdahl worked before he enlisted in the Army in 2008, was the scene of a joyful, spontaneous press conference of sorts on the Saturday when word of his release was confirmed. Though the entire town of Hailey seemed festooned with yellow ribbons that first week of June, Zaney’s has been Hailey’s center of operations for Bergdahl’s release since he first disappeared. Zaney’s owner (and Bergdahl family friend) Sue Martin addressed a small crowd of about two dozen people, including television camera crews, at the coffeehouse after learning of the prisoner exchange. A visibly happy Martin said she was “thankful that not a single shot was fired” as a result of the deal struck to gain Bergdahl’s release.
That happiness was shared by the vast majority of Hailey residents, and the town planned a “Bowe is Back” event for June 28th in the town. Bergdahl’s parents Bob and Jani were scheduled to speak at the event, as were Bergdahl family supporters and politicians: music legend Carole King was even going to perform at the celebration. But a shadow was cast on the event almost from the start, as questions regarding both the prisoner swap and Bergdahl’s disappearance itself began to swiftly surface in the international media. A barrage of negative e-mails, vacation cancellations, and more, began hitting the town, resulting in a press statement being issued by Hailey’s mayor that Monday.
“The city of Hailey is very pleased with the release of Bowe Bergdahl from captivity,” said Mayor Fritz Haemmerle in his statement. “For these last nearly five years, the city of Hailey has stood by Bowe Bergdahl’s family in their quest to bring their son home. That day has arrived…Hailey can take comfort that Bowe Bergdahl has been returned.” The Mayor went on to state that the city “received many phone calls and e-mails on the extreme polar sides of Bowe Bergdahl’s release. There are those who have negative opinions about the release of Bowe Bergdahl and the city of Hailey’s planned celebration of the return of this young man to his hometown…Hailey respectfully requests that people do not pre-judge this young man…Hailey believes in due process, and we are very happy to let the process unfold. In the meantime, our celebration will focus on Bowe Bergdahl’s release and the relief of his family and those who live here.”
But the celebration was not to be. Media reports strongly suggesting that Bergdahl simply walked away from his post, resulting in his capture and the deaths of fellow soldiers looking for him, were fueling anti-Bergdahl sentiment across America. By Tuesday, many sponsors and supporters of the “Bowe is Back” celebration were backing out of what was fast becoming a potentially dangerous event. On Wednesday, Mayor Haemmerle made the decision to cancel the celebration, as thousands of protesters threatened to spill into town and disrupt the event and the welcome home spirit that had pervaded Hailey just days before (One group from California requested a permit for 2,000 people to come to Hailey and protest).
“In the interest of public safety, the event will be cancelled,” the press release stated. “Hailey, a town of 8,000, does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become.” But Bergdahl’s release still brought hundreds of people to Hailey that first week of June, as news teams from across the world descended upon the town in search of a story. By Friday, the residents of Hailey were already weary from the media attention focused on their town, mostly negative, and the droves of reporters quizzing them.
“Yes, I’m sick of reporters asking questions,” a service station attendant told the Pioneer. “But I am more disgusted with the locals who are talking to them.” A barista named Sophia at a local coffee shop described how one reporter approached her:
“I’m from New York,” the man said. “I work for Fox News. May I interview you?” Sophia said she declined the interview.
“I don’t want to be on television,” she said.
I received the same request, verbatim, from a reporter, as I sat at a table in front of the by-then closed Zaney’s coffeeshop on Saturday, a week after Bergdahl’s release. Like the rest of the town, Sue Martin of Zaney’s was tired of the media and the threats, and had locked the doors to the business, leaving a notice on the door reading “Sue says: Media and other enquiries, please contact Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen.”
“We had not anticipated the vitriol,” Martin told the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in an interview aired on international television. “This is our homeboy… this is our child.”
Much of the criticism regarding Bergdahl’s disappearance stems from statements made by members of his own unit, who claim that the soldier simply walked away from his post, and that fellow soldiers gave their lives searching for a man many describe as a deserter. The Pioneer spoke with a Bozeman soldier who recently got out of the U.S. Army, and who served in the same unit as Bergdahl.
“When I first got to my unit [in Fort Richardson, Alaska], the first thing I heard about was ole’ Bowe Bergdahl,” said the soldier, who did not want to be identified by name in this story because of the controversy surrounding Bergdahl, and because an official military enquiry into the affair has not been completed. He said he reported to the unit in February of 2010, several months after Bergdahl’s capture, yet he heard about the incident from fellow soldiers “immediately” upon arrival at Fort Richardson.
“[They said] he was disillusioned with the American way of life,” the soldier told the Pioneer. “He had been telling his dad this for years. After his night watch, he just walked off…he had been asking strange questions, asking if he would get into trouble if he did this or that. I heard that he left most everything behind, packed and stacked on his bed, and left with only a notebook and camera, and that’s all. I heard that some of the locals (Afghans) had come across an American crawling through the weeds looking for the Taliban.” The conversation with the Bozeman soldier seemed to reiterate what other soldiers from Bergdahl’s unit were saying.
“I think he’s a bad guy, or that he’s mentally bent,” the soldier told the Pioneer. “Right after he left, attacks by the Taliban in the area ramped up. Some of our guys say there’s a video of him training the Taliban. I don’t know what his deal is…I guess we’ll find out. I’d like to see him tried, but I have a feeling even if he was tried, it would only [result] in time served [as a captive of the Taliban]. I’m curious to see…but we know he wasn’t captured…our guys know he walked.”
Until that military report is complete and made available for review, the tale regarding Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance cannot be complete, but speculation will continue to surround the story. And in Hailey, though the media may be gone, the yellow ribbons remain.
“We’re still very supportive [of Bowe],” Sue Martin of Zaney’s coffee house told the Pioneer in a brief phone interview on June 25. “Yellow ribbons are still up, and people are still coming in to get more.”