HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s hometown abruptly canceled plans Wednesday for a welcome-home celebration, citing security concerns over the prospect of big crowds — both for and against the soldier. The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls over Bergdahl, whose release after five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan has touched off a debate over whether the 28-year-old should get a hero’s welcome or be punished a deserter.
Meanwhile, the Taliban released a 17-minute video of his handover showing a thin, tense-looking Bergdahl being patted down for explosives by U.S. forces before climbing aboard an American helicopter in the dusty Afghanistan desert. Just before he was turned over, one of his Taliban captors leaned in and warned him: “Don’t come back to Afghanistan. You won’t make it out alive next time.” His captors waved goodbye as he was led away.
In Hailey, organizers of a celebration that had been scheduled for June 28 issued a statement saying the town doesn’t have the means to handle such an event, given the prospect of big crowds on both sides of the debate.
“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,” Police Chief Jeff Gunter said.
The town has had an event called “Bring Bowe Back” for several years. When news broke over the weekend of Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, organizers had announced it would be a welcome-home party instead. Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel said she and the organization have gotten hate mail and calls from people lambasting the town and branding Bergdahl un-American and a traitor.
“The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,” she said.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after walking away from his unit, unarmed, in 2009.