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Idaho Town That Waited 5 Years For Bergdahl Now Must Defend Its Support

Jessica Robinson
The exterior of Jane Drussel's store, Jane's Artifacts, in downtown Hailey, Idaho.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl's hometown of Hailey, Idaho was unprepared for the public backlash that followed the brief jubilant response to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban on Saturday. 

First, there was criticism of the Obama administration exchanging five Taliban detainees for Bergdahl. Then, some soldiers from his former unit started speaking out against the freed POW.

Josh Korder, a former Army soldier who served with Bergdahl, told CNN earlier this week that he believes men lost their lives searching for him.

“I mean, at best, he's a deserter. At worst, he's a traitor,” Korder said.

'After Sunday, There Seemed To Be A Turn'

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

Credit Brian Skoloff / AP Photo
AP Photo
sign celebrating the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stands on a street in the soldier's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

“It was just such a joyful, happy moment. And then  she said.

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

Right before I arrived for the interview with Drussel, her store had received its eleventh angry call of the day. It wasn't yet noon.

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

“I actually have some concerns about that now,” she 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.”

‘This Little Town In Idaho That Was Suddenly On The Map’

Credit Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo
AP Photo
Parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Bob Bergdahl, right, and Jani Bergdahl, speak about his release during a news conference with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Saturday, May 31, 2014.

People have called Bergdahl a traitor and a criminal who never should have been rescued — and those are the more PG 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 was not the moment of triumph the town of 8,000 had been expecting. On Sunday, Bergdahl’s father, Bob, thanked the community — “the people in Hailey, the Wood River Valley, this little town in Idaho that was suddenly on the map” — for their support over five long years.

‘He Was Just A Really Good Kid’

Hailey sits amid the foothills that grow into Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. Bob and Jani Bergdahl moved into one of the canyons outside of 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.

Credit Jessica Robinson
Mark Logullo in Quigley Canyon.

“You know you'd see him out here on the trails, smiling, head held high, smiling, walking, doing his thing,” said Mark Logullo of Quigley Canyon, three miles from town. His son was friends with Bergdahl when they were teenagers.

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

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 it.

No, I don't think so. 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,” Logullo said. 

If it turns out that back in June of 2009, Bergdahl did walk off, would that change Logullo’s perception?

“No, no. 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,” he said.

‘There's Some Middle Ground’ Between Hero, Traitor

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

Credit AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video
AP Photo/Voice Of Jihad Website via AP video
In this image taken from video obtained from Voice Of Jihad Website, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, right, stands with a Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan.

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

She says 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. 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,” she said.

Casser's daughter and Bergdahl used to be in the same fencing club. Whatever happened, she says, it was complicated.

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

‘Our Motto Is ‘Never Forget’’

It’s unclear how long it will take for facts to surface. 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, the president of the Boise Valley POW/MIA Corporation who served in the Air Force for two decades.

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

Kramer says every week, the group has dedicated a couples of minutes to Bergdahl and kept a running tally of how many days he’d been missing.

Kramer planned to be at the welcome home celebration for Bergdahl at the end of June. But Wednesday afternoon, event organizers canceled the celebration. City officials said the small town lacks the infrastructure to support the large crowd the event would draw in light of the growing controversy.

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.