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Americans Divided Over Soldier's Release in Exchange for Taliban Fighters

  • Zlatica Hoke

A sign celebrating the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stands on a street in the soldier's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, June 4, 2014.

A sign celebrating the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stands on a street in the soldier's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, June 4, 2014.

American public opinion is divided about the swap of five Taliban prisoners for a U.S. soldier who was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years. Opponents have questioned the circumstances of the soldier's capture and fear the exchange will encourage hostage takers worldwide. Supporters say that no American should be left behind no matter the cost.

One place where Americans stand firmly by Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is his hometown in Idaho. Welcoming banners hang around Hailey, a small town in southern Idaho, where many remember Sergeant Bergdahl as a boy.

"Bowe is a Hailey-raised kid and I think that the people in Hailey stick by their own until they have reason no to do it," said Karen Parker, a Hailey resident.

Residents were thrilled to hear of Bergdahl's rescue and were planning a celebration for him -- until they started receiving disparaging messages from around the country.

"We've gotten hate mail. We are being called 'traitor town' in Hailey, Idaho, because we support a young man that came from this community and we are glad he is free after five years," said Kathy Clark, another local.

Bergdahl went missing in June 2009, in Afghanistan's Paktika province, where he was deployed. Some fellow soldiers testified he walked off base and into hostile territory by choice.

"We just want people to realize he is not an American hero, that he is not - he did not serve with honor and dignity and respect. He is a deserter in a time of war -- that's it, that's the whole message," said Joshua Cornelison, a medic in Bergdahl's unit.

Some who say they will not judge Bergdahl's actions before the circumstances of his capture are clear criticize the administration's decision to release five potentially dangerous prisoners for a captured soldier. Thriller novel author Scott McEwen spoke to VOA via Skype from San Diego.

"There is a difference between, you know, leaving someone there and not, and letting go five major lieutenant/captains of a terrorist group. I think there's many things you could have done in between," said McEwen.

The swap has sparked resentment in some Afghan communities still scarred from Taliban attacks in the late 1990s. Farmer Abdul Karim remembers the attack on his village of Deh Saqi.

"They [the Taliban] took our children and wives through Jalalabad to Pakistan and imprisoned us in Pulicharkhi jail. They burned down all our homes," said Karim.

The exchange has become a political issue between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he was glad Bergdahl was free, but condemned the swap.

"The biggest issue here is the violation of a policy that the United States has had for many, many years that we don't negotiate with terrorists," said Boehner.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before a congressional panel Wednesday.

"Our first priority is assuring his well-being and his health, and getting him reunited with his family," said Hagel.

Hagel said Bergdahl's case will be examined in detail after he has recovered. In Hailey, residents wish him a speedy recovery.