Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What Bowe Bergdahl's family and home town say about rural America: more complicated than you think

With Bowe Bergdahl's release this week, following five years of captivity by the Taliban in Afghanistan, we're hearing a lot about his hometown Hailey, Idaho, population 7960.  I'm collecting some of the depictions here just to ruminate on what they suggest about the mountain West.  In this story from the day of Bergdahl's release, the New York Times depicted Bergdahl's upbringing as a "close-to-nature existence that fed Sergeant Bergdahl's wanderlust."

A 2012 New York Times story had described Bowe's upbringing this way:
Off a gravel road in a horse pasture in the crystalline air of the Northern Rockies, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl grew up skiing, fencing and dancing the role of the Nutcracker in the nearby Sun Valley Ballet School — on the surface, at least, an unlikely recruit for the United States Army.
The Bergdahls were transplants from California in the early 1980s, attracted to central Idaho by construction jobs in booming Ketchum and Sun Valley:
By 1986, the year Bowe was born, [Robert Bergdahl] was driving for U.P.S. and had bought 40 acres for $50,000 on a remote road outside Hailey, a town of some 6,000 people, many of them self-described “worker bees” for the resorts [Sun Valley and Ketchum] to the north. 
He built a simple cabin that eventually housed about 5,000 books, but for years had no phone. 
* * *
Still, the surroundings were breathtaking and, by the accounts of family and friends, Sergeant’s Bergdahl’s childhood was idyllic. Jani Bergdahl home-schooled Bowe and his sister, made sure they went to church every Sunday and let them loose to explore.
The first story in the New York Times following Bergdahl's capture in 2009 is here, headlined "Hailey Journal:  A Capture in Afghanistan, and Home Town Closes Ranks."  It noted that neither the Bergdahl family nor Hailey "appear to have a strong connection to the military," contrasting Hailey with the types of rural towns that often channel their young people into military service because of a dearth of other opportunities:  
 There are craft breweries and bike shops on Main Street, not the empty storefronts and Army recruitment centers found in some other rural towns. The most visible military presence is a small armory for the Idaho National Guard that is not open on a daily basis. 
* * *  
Unlike in some other, less affluent small towns, where young people often join the military as a route to employment and a broader world, children who grow up in Hailey and its neighboring towns … are more likely to attend college, [Blaine County] Sheriff Femling said.
That story also touched on the unusual circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance and how locals were responding on a personal level.   One resident back in 2009 said that the Bergdahl situation "seemed to have transcended [political] division" regarding the military and what then-Private Bergdahl might or might not have done:
We all want to support the family. How stressful can you imagine that would be? You don’t know if something you say could be picked up and used against him. We’re playing it pretty close to the vest.
Today, the Los Angeles Times is among media outlets reporting that Hailey has canceled a celebration of Bowe's homecoming, which had been scheduled for later this month.  One reason:  the town doesn't have the capacity to handle the number of visitors, including media and Bergdahl detractors, who would likely show up.  Here's an excerpt from that story:
Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle told the Los Angeles Times that the town had been deluged with calls and letters of complaint that it was honoring a deserter. The event had been intended as a private celebration, he said, but the organizers decided it was too provocative considering the bitter national dialogue.
NPR also reports on the cancellation:
"I received one call today from a (veterans group in California) that wanted to bring up 2,000 protesters," Police Chief Jeff Gunter told the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday. "They were asking about lawful assembly and how we handle it." 
Gunter and the rally's organizers, who had been planning the event for months, said their town of 8,000 doesn't have the infrastructure to cope with the large and potentially aggressive crowds that seemed likely to materialize. 
Hailey Chamber of Commerce President Jane Drussel tells the AP that her group has been getting hate mail and phone calls from people criticizing the town and calling Bergdahl a traitor. 
"The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful," she says.
These depictions reflect various rural stereotypes--some of them contradictory of each other.  Hailey seems like a "typical" patriotic small town, advocating for and celebrating Bowe as a "typical" POW.  But the Bergdahls are not what most would consider typical ruralites, though they are arguably typical of a certain faction of the rural gentrification populace:  the workers who support the wealthy.  Several stories, including one noted above, mention the Bergdahls church going, though the family doesn't look or otherwise "sound" like typical rural religious folks, who we often assume to be conservative and intolerant--and the types to join the military.  Some of these contradictions are implicit in something Robert Bergdahl said in the 2012 NYT story,
This is not your stereotypical American military family whose son went to war.
Indeed, one story that ran this past weekend about Bergdahl's release under the headline, "Lesson for P.O.W's Father:  Sometimes Men Do Come Back."  It features something Bob Bergdahl told his son in December, 2008, just before Bowe deployed and six months before he found himself in the hands of the Taliban:
Men don’t come back from this, you know.

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