Days after the small mountain community of Hailey, Idaho, erupted
in elation over news that he had been freed in a prisoner exchange,
the festive mood in town has been tempered by claims from former
members of his combat unit that Bergdahl had deliberately abandoned
Some of his one-time comrades assert that the massive search for
Bergdahl after he went missing in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, may
have cost the lives of up to six fellow soldiers who searched for
The U.S. military has said the circumstances under which Bergdahl
disappeared have yet to be fully investigated, though Pentagon
officials have indicated Bergdahl is unlikely to face charges
regardless of what the Army learns of his capture because he has
Still, for all the outpouring of hometown joy and national media
attention lionizing Bergdahl immediately following his release on
Saturday, supporters in Hailey insist they never regarded him as a
“People in Hailey have been aware for some time that there were
questions about how Bowe came to be captured, and that there was a
chance that Bowe could be in trouble when he came home,” said
Stefanie O'Neill, a co-organizer of a welcome-home rally planned for
“The celebration is going ahead. It is not being abridged in any way
in light of the controversy that has arisen,” she told Reuters. “Our
purpose was to bring Bowe back and to celebrate his return, and that
has not changed ... We wanted one of our own home.”
O'Neill and others said they were surprised by the intensity of the
backlash stirred by allegations of desertion. They said the
28-year-old soldier, remembered in town as a somewhat bookish, but
athletic loner, should be given the benefit of the doubt until he
has a chance to address the claims against him.
“Bowe has been lynched without a trial,” said Lee Ann Goddard
Ferris, a neighbor of the soldier's family who has known Bergdahl's
father Bob for 35 years and describes herself as a conservative
Republican. “These are good people. These are good and loyal
The Army sergeant was flown over the weekend to a military hospital
in Germany for a full physical and mental evaluation, and it was not
clear whether he would return to Idaho by the end of the month.
"Right now, all I know is that Bowe is in Germany trying to
recover," said state Senator Michelle Stennett, a Democrat whose
district includes his hometown. She added that she has received some
emails from constituents expressing concern about her plans to speak
at the June 28 rally.
"Until he has his say, we don't have all sides. I'm open to hearing
the whole dialogue," she said.
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YELLOW RIBBONS REMAIN
Signs of celebration remained very much in evidence in downtown
Hailey, a town of about 8,000 residents just south of the upscale
Sun Valley ski resort in central Idaho, a left-leaning political
pocket in an otherwise overwhelmingly conservative state.
Although motorists have ceased their jubilant honking of car horns
since Saturday, symbolic yellow ribbons were still tied to lamp
posts and trees, and banners hung in shop windows bearing a photo of
Bergdahl's face and the slogan "Bowe is free at last."
An upbeat atmosphere also pervaded at Zaney's River Street Coffee
House, which has long served as a hub for supporters, friends and
family of Bergdahl.
Questions raised about the origins of his capture, meanwhile, have
stoked a related controversy over the Obama administration's
decision to exchange Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners who had
been held at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Critics of the swap have accused the administration of failing to
give Congress sufficient advance notice of the exchange and
suggested too high a price was paid in freeing senior Taliban
commanders accused in deadly attacks on U.S. forces.
O'Neill, who is a Republican, said she believed the national furor
over Bergdahl's release was heavily politicized.
"If this were not a midterm election year, this would not be playing
out the way it is," she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis
in Denver; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Ken Wills)
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