HAILEY • Ken Heuring remembers when every tree and light pole along Main Street bore a yellow ribbon. “Bring Bowe Home,” read the big storefront signs.
Each bow and banner was another reminder that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Hailey was still being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. As Heuring walked downtown Thursday afternoon, he noticed something he hadn’t for awhile.
“I didn’t even notice the yellow ribbons were gone,” he said.
Bergdahl was charged Wednesday with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, alleged crimes that could land him in prison the rest of his life. Once welcomed home as a hero, Bergdahl has suddenly become a much more complicated character in this small resort town. Residents are struggling to reconcile the bike-riding youngster they grew up seeing in high school plays with the man some are now calling a traitor on national television.
“Is there any real justification for walking off post? From the military perspective, very little. It’s looking bad for him,” said Hoby Sparks, whose family attends church with several of Bergdahl’s relatives. “I’m still glad he came home. There’s a lot of conflict. A lot of patriotic conflict and it’s like, How happy should I be?”
Employees at the stores that once proudly displayed supportive posters are reluctant to speak about Bergdahl. Several city residents on Thursday didn’t want to be quoted by name.
Two woman leaving from lunch at Shorty’s Diner in downtown Hailey said people and businesses got harassing phone calls and visitors after Bergdahl’s release. One of the women called the situation scary in a town where she usually feels safe.
The other woman said she has known the Bergdahl family for a long time, but declined to give her name to protect her safety. She still has a yellow ribbon on her tree for all soldiers who have not come home.
Zaney’s Coffee Shop, where Bergdahl worked before he entered the Army, was once plastered in banners that said “Standing With Bowe” and “Welcome Home Bowe” days after his return, was empty Thursday. At noon the doors were locked. A lone yellow bow tied to a tree rustled in the wind as an American flag hanging from the end of the red building had wrapped itself around its metal pole.
Bergdahl was handed over to U.S. Special Forces on May 31, five years after he left his post in Afghanistan. Bergdahl issued a statement through his lawyer hours after being charged, saying he’d been tortured by his captors and had tried to escape a dozen times.
His release was part of a prisoner trade that drew criticism.
“It doesn’t look good trading five terrorists for one, just to lock him up,” said Tom Watters of Hailey.
Watters said he hasn’t followed Bergdahl’s story closely but is happy Bergdahl is back in the U.S.
“I don’t want to see anyone locked up somewhere else,” he said.
Like a lot of other folks in town, Heuring, the man walking down Main Street on Thursday, said he knows Bergdahl’s parents, Bob and Janie Bergdahl. He has never met Bowe, but felt compassion for him and his family.
“I don’t think they should bring charges against him,” Heuring said. “He paid his dues spending that much time in captivity.”