My Un-Private Idaho
Bowe Bergdahl, the political-entertainment complex, and the personal costs of scandal
At the annual Fourth of July celebrations in Hailey, Idaho, normalcy prevailed. Cowboys competing in the Days of the Old West Rodeo rode broncos with names like Comanche and Spirit, and a Mormon pastor asked God to protect American troops stationed overseas. At the Independence Day Parade, Olympic high-jumping legend and State Senate candidate Dick Fosbury waved from the back of a sparkling blue 1936 Ford convertible, and families waved back from camping chairs they had set out along Main Street the day before.
Conspicuously absent throughout was any mention — by anyone near a microphone, at least — of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. “I don’t think that any city wants to be judged on the good or bad actions of one single individual,” said Mayor Fritz Haemmerle when I asked him about it later. “The city of Hailey is not Bowe-Bergdahl-ville.”
True. But for nearly five years, Bergdahl was the town’s common cause. I lived in the area for about a decade, and was working there as a magazine editor when he went missing in 2009. Hailey is the seat of Blaine County, a rugged stretch of high-desert and alpine country that spreads about 20,000 people across an area larger than the state of Delaware. The mountain towns where Bergdahl grew up are isolated and intimate. People pick up the weekly newspaper to clip supermarket coupons and read the classified section’s semi-anonymous gossip. (“K, for a girl that loves to dance, your tattooed dud of a boyfriend would not move at the Franti concert . . . time to dump him.”) For half a decade, “Bring Bowe Home” decals were a fixture in Hailey — at the auto-parts store, on restaurant doors and camper-van windows — and the trees lining Main Street wore yellow ribbons in Bergdahl’s honor, replaced every Memorial Day by local scout troops. Residents could trace the passing of time since Bergdahl was captured by the growth of his father’s beard.
On Saturday, May 31, a video of Bergdahl’s release was broadcast to the world by the Taliban. In the footage, he emerges from the backseat of an extended-cab pickup truck, wearing a traditional white tunic and a woven shawl that, according to a Taliban commander later interviewed by Time, can also be worn as a turban. The traditional garb was a parting gift, the commander said. “We wanted him to return home with good memories.”
Jane Drussel, the president of Hailey’s chamber of commerce and the owner of the city’s largest stationery shop, learned of Bergdahl’s release in a text message from one of her employees at 8 A.M. that morning. “Of course my immediate thought was, ‘Wow, we need to let the community know,’ ” she said. “I ran down to the store and called the girls and said, ‘Take the picture we have of Bowe and make a little eleven-by-seventeen poster that says that Bowe has been released and we’ll put them up around town.’ ”
As the posters went up, and the cars on Main Street began honking their excitement, the complicating factors of the release — that Bergdahl had been exchanged for five bearded Muslims, that some of his fellow soldiers had accused him of desertion, and that his parents were Christians who had prayed for, and openly appealed to the religious mercy of, their son’s Muslim captors — started seeping into the national consciousness. Later that day, as the media debated the optics of Bergdahl’s father offering the Islamic blessing of peace, in Arabic, to his son from the White House Rose Garden, Hailey was of a different mind. “The only thing that our community cared about,” said Drussel, “was that that son of these people, who were a huge part of our community, was no longer a prisoner of war.”
The day after the prisoner exchange, a headline in the New York Times read, “Planned Celebration for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl Just Got a Whole Lot Bigger.” Correspondents who had covered the story since 2009 returned to Hailey and descended on Sue Martin’s coffee shop, where Bergdahl had worked before joining the Army, to cover the feel-good angles. “Media people were giving me big hugs,” said Martin, adding that some were in tears. Camera crews hit Main Street to get shots of the fresh ribbons and Drussel’s posters, and to capture quotes expressing cheer and relief.
By Monday, though, it had become clear that the politics of war, the business of politics, and the seductions of an election-year scandal were converging, and the media in New York got to work on their own angles. In the absence of information, free-associative suspicions filled the airwaves. On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly told his 2,658,000 viewers that Bowe’s father “looks like a Muslim.” Later that week, he generously offered that, while “Sergeant Bergdahl and his father appear to be Taliban sympathizers . . . they should be given the benefit of every doubt.” O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and national-security correspondent Jennifer Griffin even took to mispronouncing the family’s name with an occidental inflection, as “berg-DAAHL.” The New York office of the Daily Mail, the world’s most-visited news website, posted some of the earliest articles alleging that Robert Bergdahl had Taliban sympathies. The site also scrutinized the family’s hunting activities and history of home-schooling, and published a photo caption ridiculing their modest home.
On Tuesday, emails and calls started pouring into Hailey’s city hall and chamber of commerce, and to any business that had been caught on camera appearing too happy about Bergdahl’s release. “You people are human garbage to honor this disgusting misfit,” read one email sent to the city administrator. “The only welcome he deserves is to be hung in a public square. . . . The parents deserve the same treatment,” read another. Drussel’s and Martin’s business phones rang throughout Tuesday and Wednesday with harassing calls.
Three emails sent to municipal addresses so alarmed the city’s police chief, Jeff Gunter, that he forwarded them to the FBI. One of them read: “As a Vietnam Era Veteran, I hope this Mother Fu**** comes back to your town, strapped with explosives and blows up the city council. . . . What an absolute shame, to watch on National TV, this bitch, saying she was a friend of his, and we need to wait for the facts.”
The reporters who’d come to Idaho pivoted to the new story. “I was asked, with a microphone thrust in my face, ‘Is he a traitor?’ ” Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen told me. Schoen fielded calls that week from every conceivable news outlet, from southern Idaho’s Twin Falls Times-News to NPR to the French Nouvel Observateur. Satellite trucks filled the gravel parking lot outside Martin’s coffee shop. “There were so many electrical cords going across to their vehicles,” she said, “I couldn’t water the lawn for twelve days or I’d kill somebody.”
Soon Gunter fielded calls from attorneys claiming to represent veterans’ organizations in California and Texas. When he heard that each group wanted to bring 2,000 protesters to the celebration party, he foresaw disaster. “I believe they were actually going to come,” he told me. The city encouraged the event’s organizers to cancel the celebration, which led to a fresh headline on the Drudge Report, and to another wave of vitriol.
“I stopped using the word ‘facts,’ ” said Schoen. “We don’t know the facts. There are many things people are asserting as facts that haven’t been established.”
We still have no definitive account of what happened after Bergdahl, then a private, disappeared from infantry outpost Mest Malak in the early hours of June 30, 2009. A man claiming to be one of his captors later told the Sunday Times that he had been spotted walking into a village with an Afghan soldier. A group of Taliban gunmen were reportedly alerted; they killed the Afghan soldier, then struck Bergdahl in the face with a rifle butt and apprehended him. American intelligence records offer different stories, many of which informed the most thorough account to date, a 2012 Rolling Stone article by the late Michael Hastings.
But even Hastings’s version has its gaps and inconsistencies. One of the first radio messages intercepted the day Bergdahl went missing said, “An American solider with a camera is looking for someone who speaks English.” This tidbit, first reported by Hastings, has been widely presented as evidence that Bergdahl defected. But the writer Robert Young Pelton, who was in eastern Afghanistan in the days after Bergdahl went missing, wrote on Vice’s website last week that this intelligence was based on a faulty translation. According to Pelton, it was the kidnappers, not Bergdahl, who were looking for a camera and an English-speaker, because they needed to make a hostage tape.
The day after Bergdahl disappeared, American intelligence operatives picked up another radio conversation that casts doubt on the “willing defection” narrative and that, in light of Pelton’s reporting, seems to support the simpler theory of a kidnapping. In the conversation, one Taliban fighter tells another that when they found Bergdahl, he “was sitting taking [shit] he had no gun with him. He was taking [shit], he has not cleaned his butt yet,” one man says. “What [shame] for them,” says the second.
In the first days after the swap, the Pentagon stated forcefully that Bergdahl was not directly responsible for any American military deaths. An investigation by the New York Times backs up those statements, as does Pelton’s reporting. FoxNews.com acknowledged as much, too, in an article confirming that two soldiers who were killed while the Bergdahl search was under way had not died while on patrol.
1 Grenell and his partner, Brad Chase, have defended themselves against accusations that their work with the soldiers was politically motivated. “Like Bart Simpson on chalkboard,” Chase tweeted, “I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Republican. I just work with a famous one.” Chase also wrote that the media tour was “pro bono” with “no money changing hands,” though it remains unknown how the six soldiers’ last-minute travel to New York was funded. Neither Grenell nor Chase responded to my questions about their media tour.
2 In the week after the prisoner exchange, the Pentagon confirmed (and Fox News reported) that Bergdahl had made at least two escape attempts while in captivity. A 2011 Daily Beast story by veteran reporter Sami Yousafzai about one of the attempts quotes an Afghan insurgent, Haniz Hanif, who said that Bergdahl had been gone two nights and three days, and that he’d been found nearly naked, hiding under leaves in a shallow ditch he had dug with his hands. According to Hanif, it took at least five militants to subdue Bergdahl.
The FoxNews.com article went online the day after nearly 3 million people tuned in to watch Megyn Kelly conduct an exclusive interview with six of Bergdahl’s former platoon mates. The soldiers had been flown to New York for a media tour arranged by the Republican communications strategist Richard Grenell.1 “He doesn’t seem like a captive,” said medic Joshua Cornelison of Bergdahl’s proof-of-life videos. “He seems like someone who is potentially enjoying himself.” Bergdahl’s former roommate, Cody Full, criticized Bergdahl for appearing in the videos at all. “I would have done everything I had to do,” Full said, “cursing them, trying to escape, swinging on them, trying to steal a gun, shoot them . . . I’m not gonna be a propaganda piece so my family can see me on the Internet.”2
Fox paired the soldiers’ sit-down with a stunning coup de grâce, proclaiming on its website and its shows, “EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show.” The report was based entirely on intelligence reports provided to Fox by a former private defense contractor, The Eclipse Group, which Fox reporter James Rosen described as “a shadowy private firm of former intelligence officers and operatives.” Unmentioned in Rosen’s piece or anywhere on Fox’s many platforms was that Eclipse CEO Duane “Dewey” Clarridge has a long history of lying to the government, and that, as Pelton discovered, Clarridge’s reports declare that they are “not a finished intelligence product.”
With its week-ending scoops, Fox completed a narrative arc of treason and disgrace that left its audience — and the audience of the many outlets and blogs that cite Fox as an authority — at its agitated peak.
Sue Martin, who had been a visible part of the Bergdahl story since the summer of 2009, when the family first asked her to speak on their behalf, suddenly found herself being called “a Taliban sympathizer” on her store’s Facebook page. One day, a man in his sixties paid the establishment a visit, waited for the other customers to leave, and leaned into her face to launch a verbal assault on her assumed politics. By week’s end, she’d been similarly accosted by two more men. For the first time in her life, Martin was concerned about being seen in public. The media correspondents camped out in her parking lot, she said, “were apologizing to me personally for what the media was doing.” But they also needed access to her electrical outlets and Wi-Fi, and when the unrelenting combination of harassment and press demands convinced Martin to close shop, she offered her keys to one of the journalists outside. “I have no idea who I gave them to,” she said.
The Hailey residents and merchants I spoke with all conveyed disgust and outrage to varying degrees. Mayor Haemmerle tried to place the trauma in broader context. “What are you supposed to do when people express themselves?” he asked me. “It’s the United States of America.” By Friday, less than a week after the prisoner release, the FBI was investigating multiple death threats against Bergdahl’s family.
After enduring all of this, the people of Hailey were warier of a reporter with a notebook than I remembered from years past. Jane Drussel told me, in about five different rhetorical formulations, that people were moving on, while Sue Martin said, “It’s almost like it didn’t happen.” Perhaps this was necessary decompression after the frenzy, a defensive reaction to the torrent of hate, or just the natural flow of time and memory. But evidence of a chill was plain. People spoke to me about Bergdahl in low voices, as if about a death. The mayor described it as “a sad time.” By mid-July, the ribbons on Main Street had nearly all come down.
And the media still lurked: a reporter and a photographer from the Daily Mail had been around, and CNN filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against Blaine County to release a fifteen-year-old police record that mentions the Bergdahls. Some corners of the media remained obsessed with why Bergdahl “wouldn’t talk to his parents,” as if the press were due a formal release when two private citizens spoke.
Bergdahl has completed his psychological reintegration and has been given a vaguely described desk job at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. An Army investigation into the details of his capture has begun, but no timeline on its duration has been set. One of the few concrete facts we know about the former prisoner is this: upon his return to American military custody, he requested peanut butter.
Everyone I spoke with in Hailey was clear on this point: Bowe Bergdahl still has a home in Idaho. “People have said it’s obvious that he’s a deserter. People have said it’s obvious that he is a traitor,” Schoen told me. “There is nothing about this story that is obvious.”
“If the investigation allows him to come back here, I think we are a fair-minded people,” said Mayor Haemmerle. “That is what the West is all about. That’s why people came out here originally, to live their lives. Hopefully people can live their lives.”