The small Idaho hometown of released captive Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has canceled plans for a celebration later this month, citing security concerns after it was inundated with negative emails and angry phone calls.
Organizers released a statement Wednesday saying that because of national media attention on Bergdahl’s story, they expect a significant increase in the number of people planning to attend the event — some to protest, and others to support the Bergdahl family. The organizers said that the town, with just 8,000 people, doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a big event.
However, large events are not uncommon in the region. In nearby Ketchum, just 12 miles to the north, about 32,000 people attend the town’s Wagon Days celebration each year. Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter said the event has been misrepresented in the national media, leading people to think it’s some sort of hero’s welcome.
“If you had 10,000 people, 5,000 on one side and 5,000 on the other, then just due to the national attention we don’t know what to expect,” Gunter said.
The town has had an event called “Bring Bowe Back” for several years. That commemoration of his capture was scheduled for June 28, but when news of Bergdahl’s release broke, organizers quickly announced it would be a welcome home party instead.
Bergdahl, 28, had been held prisoner by the Taliban since June 30, 2009. He was handed over to U.S. special forces by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five Afghan detainees held by the United States.
Questions remain about the events that led to his capture, with some critics calling Bergdahl a deserter.
Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said that she’s received dozens of hateful emails and phone calls over the past few days, starting after she was quoted in news stories saying the town was jubilant that Bergdahl had been released. The Chamber of Commerce has also received dozens of emails and calls from detractors, many lambasting the town, Drussel and the chamber for supporting Bergdahl, calling him un-American and a traitor.
Drussel said she hasn’t yet received any direct threats, but with all the vitriol, she worried the town wouldn’t have enough security.
“It’s upsetting because this is where people live in peace and harmony,” she said. “The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful.”
Drussel also said that the event had never been planned to be a “hero’s welcome,” but more of a welcome home ceremony as he reunites with this family. She was saddened by all the hateful messages, saying, “He and his family will never know a normal life.”