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Bergdahl's hometown sidesteps desertion debate

Jun. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sue Martin, a Bergdahl family friend and owner of Zaney's Coffee Shop in downtown Hailey, Idaho, leans on the counter in her shop June 5 watching the crowd of media on the street outside.
Sue Martin, a Bergdahl family friend and owner of Zaney's Coffee Shop in downtown Hailey, Idaho, leans on the counter in her shop June 5 watching the crowd of media on the street outside. (Brian Skoloff / AP)
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HAILEY, IDAHO — Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown is accustomed to celebrity and the attention it brings.

Singer-songwriter Carole King owns a ranch nearby. Bruce Willis has been trying to sell his 20-acre Hailey estate for years. Ernest Hemingway shot himself to death in neighboring Ketchum, and his granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, is a local.

But the release of the American soldier in a prisoner swap with the Taliban has drawn a less savory form of attention, surprising some townspeople who are more used to entertaining happy tourists than being part of a national debate. The community canceled a planned welcome-home celebration rather than become ground zero for criticism of the deal that freed its native son.

“I think so many people have come into this area where they can just lead with their heart,” said Sue Martin, owner of Zaney’s Coffee Shop, who described Hailey as the sort of place where residents care about each other.

Martin said she has closed her coffee shop for nearly a week to serve as a spokeswoman for the Bergdahl family. She said she’s losing money, but she felt it was her duty.

“This is the right thing to do, and that’s just what we do around here,” Martin said Thursday.

She said her customers have told her, “You’re doing the right thing, Sue. We’ll be back.”

A day earlier, organizers and town officials decided because of security concerns to call off the party celebrating Berdgahl’s expected return home from five years in Taliban captivity. The town has been flooded with hate mail and angry phone calls from people who thought the celebration would have condoned the actions of Bergdahl, who was captured after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009.

“We’re a diverse culture here, but we all come together — weather, fires, personal tragedies — people in this town and in this valley are there for each other,” Martin said.

Bergdahl was released over the weekend in exchange for the U.S releasing five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

Some are now calling for criminal charges of desertion. Many Hailey residents aren’t taking sides on the question.

In conversations around town, they sidestep the matter, saying they just want him back home and that the politics surrounding his story have no place here.

“We’re not going to turn our back on him,” said Lee Ann Ferris, Bergdahl’s neighbor and a longtime resident.

Blaine County Commissioner Lawrence Schoen said he understands the debate but is withholding judgment until all the facts have surfaced. He said there will always be support for the Bergdahls in Hailey no matter what the outcome.

“We have many of the same questions the rest of the country has,” Schoen said.

But, he added: “There shouldn’t be a question as to whether or not we are looking forward to the return of Sgt. Bergdahl because there isn’t one. We do, and we honor his family.”

Hailey Police Chief Jeff Gunter also has known the family for years and is frustrated by the uproar.

“I’m not going to prejudge. Some people already have,” Gunter said. “We’re not going to rush to judgment. We’re going to let the process unfold.”

Like many resort towns in the picturesque region between the Rockies and the Cascade Mountains, Hailey is somewhat insulated from the rest of the state.

Blaine County’s high property values and cost of living make it difficult for low- and middle-income families to afford homes, and the wealthy second-home owners are often gone for half the year or more. The county’s median family income is $74,000 — about $30,000 more than the statewide average.

The region is also one of the few Democratic strongholds in vastly Republican Idaho. Still, most Hailey residents consider themselves more like working-class country folks compared to Ketchum’s rich-and-famous city types.

Ferris said “it’s just a real small town” that welcomes newcomers attracted by the scenery.

“We’re all accepting of new people,” she said.

The town boasts an annual sheep-herding festival that usually draws about 19,000 visitors over a four-day weekend each fall. Residents mark the Fourth of July with the Days of the Old West Rodeo. The ebb and flow of the tourism seasons gives locals plenty of breathing room because the population shrinks each spring and fall.

“Somebody once referred to Hailey as a village,” Martin recalled. “Then he corrected himself and called it a town. And I said, ‘No, no, no. Village captures it much better.’”

Boone reported from Boise.

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