HAILEY, Idaho – This small, central Idaho city of about 8,000 is wilting in the international spotlight brought by what was supposed to be a joyous occasion, and a much-anticipated celebration welcoming back a long-lost son has been canceled.
For years, the town has rallied, hoped and prayed for the return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the polite and sensitive boy who was home-schooled by his parents, attended Sovereign Redeemer Presbyterian Church, took ballet lessons in nearby Ketchum and worked as a barista at Zaney's coffee shop on River Street before enlisting in the Army in 2008. Captured by the Taliban a year into his tour, Bergdahl was held for five years until Saturday's dramatic announcement that he'd been swapped for five of Guantanamo Bay's most dangerous prisoners.
But the jubilation that followed his release has given way to confusion and fear, as questions about whether Bergdahl was a deserter have surfaced. City Hall has been inundated with angry letters and emails from around the country. The long-planned "Welcome Back, Bowe" celebration, planned for June 28 in Hop Porter Park, was canceled Wednesday amid growing claims by Bergdahl's fellow soldiers that he deserves no honor.
“This man deserves no welcome," reads one of the many emails City Administrator Heather Dawson has fielded at City Hall. "His reward is being alive, unlike the brave soldiers who actually followed their orders and continued to search for him knowing full well he had deserted his post.”
“You and anyone else involved in organizing this farce of a celebration should be ashamed of yourselves,” reads another.
Some employees and the businesses that have supported Bowe’s release have received angry messages from people both around the country and even from within the once close-knit community.
Dawson calls the issue “polarizing,” and says the small town can feel the world eyes, through the convoy of television trucks and journalists that have descended into the picturesque Wood River Valley.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dawson issued a press release saying, “In the interest of public safety, the event will be canceled. Hailey, a town of 8,000 does not have the infrastructure to support an event of the size this could become. “
“All of America is watching your little town and hoping the right thing is done,” read one e-mail.
But others write in support of Bergdahl, his hometown and the American president who struck a pricey deal to bring home America's last remaining prisoner of war.
“The President knows very well that we cannot leave an American behind, no matter the case. His decision is right and patriotic. The outcry that follows is more of the same. The outcry comes from circles that hate President Obama from the first day in the Oval Office. It is not only sad but also despicable that the hate for the President is now being visited upon Bowe Bergdahl. “
“I think that most of these people that are passing judgment have no idea, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Let's get him home and then things can be looked into. But lets not forget that he’s spent five years in captivity for whatever reasons this happened.”
While the nation debates Bergdahl's just deserts, most Hailey residents stay defiantly positive that their hometown soldier has been freed. The yellow ribbons still circle trees and signs saying "Bowe is free at last!" hang in front of shops. Most folks are glad Bergdahl is safe, and willing to reserve judgment about what he did.
"It's not like he’s been vacationing at Disneyland for five years," said Sherry Horton, a former roommate of Bergdahl, told Fox News. "He’s been going through a lot so not only should we find out the truth but also take into account everything that’s happened over the five years."
Sue Martin, who has been a spokeswoman for the Bergdahl family, said the town will stand by Bergdahl.
"We’re going to have somebody here who’s going to need our support and help and the transition back into his life," said Martin. "Bowe’s going to write the next chapter in his book supposedly right here in Hailey and we’ll see what his needs are, he’s going to have to have some privacy I’m sure absolutely and the military of course will get him started on that road to healing – physically, emotionally and psychologically. We’ll be his support system for what he needs."
But as Fox News interviewed townspeople whose bemusement at the media attention has quickly given way to annoyance, one man approached to offer his opinion.
"He's a deserter, you know," he said, before striding away.
Fox News' Dan Springer contributed to this report