NPR Story
11:30 am
Wed June 4, 2014

Idaho Town That Waited 5 Years For Sgt. Bergdahl Defends Its Support

Originally published on Wed December 10, 2014 4:47 pm

The response to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban on Saturday was jubilant at first. Then the story took a dramatically different turn. 

First, there was criticism of the Obama administration exchanging five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Bergdahl. Then, soldiers from his former unit started speaking out.

Former Army Sgt. Josh Korder told CNN earlier this week that he believes men lost their lives searching for Bergdahl. He said, “I mean at best he's a deserter, at worst he's a traitor.”

Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, was unprepared for the public backlash.

'I really am shocked'

For the last five years, Jane Drussel made sure the yellow ribbons on all the trees on Hailey's Main Street got replaced when they started to fade. Drussel, who owns an art supply store in Hailey, said when the news of Bergdahl's release first came, it was everything she had imagined.

“It was just such a joyful, happy moment," Drussel said. "And then after Sunday, there seemed to be a turn.”

That turn came in the form of angry phone calls, emails, Facebook posts and tweets. People from across the country were incensed that the town would celebrate Bergdahl’s return.

On Tuesday, Drussel's store received its eleventh angry call of the day before noon.

As the president of the local chamber of commerce, Drussel is helping with the welcome home celebration for Bergdahl later this month.

“I actually have some concerns about that now," Drussel said. “I have safety concerns. I do. I just never have seen a turn of events happen so fast where you have such nasty remarks being made. I really am shocked.”

People have called Bergdahl a traitor and a criminal who never should have been rescued -- and those are the more reserved comments. Some have vowed to come to Hailey to demonstrate at the event. The mayor of Hailey has responded with a statement asking people to withhold judgment until all the facts of the case are known.

'This is a witch hunt'

This has not been the moment of triumph the town of 8,000 expected. 

Hailey sits amid the foothills that grow into Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. Bob and Jani Bergdahl, the sergeant's parents, moved into Quigley Canyon, three miles from town. They were off the grid for a time and homeschooled their kids, Sky and Bowe. Hiking trails on the sagebrush covered hills were just minutes away.

Mark Logullo, whose son Sean was friends with Bergdahl when the two were teens, described a normal upbringing.

“You know you'd see him out here on the trails, smiling, head held high, smiling, walking, doing his thing,” Logullo said. 

“He was just a really good kid," Logullo said. "His parents raised a really nice boy.”

Some former members of Bergdahl's platoon have said Bergdahl mused about walking off into the similarly rugged hills of southeast Afghanistan. But Logullo doesn't buy that Bergdahl deserted.

“No, I don't think so," he said. "Basically, this is a witch hunt. Old school, 'You're guilty. Everyone says you are so you must be.' And only he knows what really happened.”

But if Bergdahl did walk off in June of 2009, would that change Logullo's view of him?

"No, no," Logullo said. "I just think we need to let those that are in charge deal with it and in the meantime accept someone home that's been lost for awhile.”

'We have to understand what really went on'

The military does have an ongoing investigation. Bergdahl is still undergoing medical treatment in a military hospital. But an Army spokesman said interviews with him about what happened will eventually be a part of their inquiry.

“He's one of our own here," Minna Casser, a neighbor of the Bergdahls, said. "We're very happy that he's coming home”

She said if Bergdahl did leave the base, there's another important question.

“Why? -- was he that angry? And I don't think that has surfaced yet at all," Casser said. "And I think that's something we're going to have to wait and hear from him or from someone about what really caused him to do that.”

Casser's daughter and Bergdahl used to be in the same fencing club. She said whatever happened, it was complicated.

“I don't think we should have to choose between him being a 'hero' and committing treason," Casser said. "I think there's some middle ground there. And we have to understand what really went on.”

It’s unclear how long that will take. What is clear to some is that no soldier should be left behind on the battlefield.

“He was listed by the Department of Defense as a POW and that’s all that matters to us,” said Ralph Kramer, president of the Boise Valley POW/MIA Corporation. He served in the Air Force for two decades.

“We've been supporting Bob and Jani since the beginning as part of our mission," Kramer said. "The POW mission is to make people aware and keep them aware. Our motto is 'Never forget.'"

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