Bowe Bergdahl's hometown uneasy about its one-time hero

The mountain of letters for Bowe Bergdahl
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Story highlights

  • Bergdahl, held captive in Afghanistan, has been free since May
  • People in his Idaho hometown worked to publicize him while he was hostage
  • But his freedom came with questions and town mayor says it's time to move on
In the days after Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released from nearly five years in captivity, yellow ribbons and banners celebrating his release decorated the main street, red-bricked storefronts of his hometown. A sense of relief and excitement filled the air: Bergdahl would soon be home.
But more than four months after Bergdahl returned to the United States, the ribbons and banners are gone. This town's relationship with the saga of their homegrown prisoner of war is complicated.
"We're done. We're over it," Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said as he denied CNN's request for an on-camera interview. "We stood by the Bergdahl family to get Bowe home but we need to move on."
Inside a secure locker of the Hailey Police Department, there are boxes filled with thousands of letters for Bergdahl.
The letters were sent to the White House as part of a "Bring Bowe Home" campaign started through social media last November, just months before Bergdahl would be released.
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Attorney: Bergdahl a 'pretty tough hombre'
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Stefanie O'Neill, a Bergdahl family friend, spearheaded the letter campaign. In three months, O'Neill said, several hundred thousand letters poured into the White House. A few of those boxes were eventually shipped to Idaho. O'Neill can't bring herself to throw the letters away.
"It means that people all over the world cared about Bowe," O'Neill said. "We would hope that he would like to read through them one day to see just how much he meant to so many people."
The boxes are a symbol of how the story of Bergdahl's rescue didn't come with a triumphant homecoming.
Bergdahl's release on May 30 was instantly doused in controversy. Many of the soldiers who served with him accused the 28-year-old soldier of deserting his unit by walking off the Afghanistan base before he was captured. There was also intense criticism of the Obama administration for trading Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Bergdahl now sits in a sort of limbo. He has completed the Army's formal reintegration program and continues psychological treatment. He is still assigned to a unit with U.S. Army North in San Antonio, performing "administrative duties."
But Bergdahl is also waiting to hear if he'll face any criminal charges in the military justice system. In August, he was questioned by Gen. Kenneth Dahl for two days.
The Army announced on Friday that Dahl completed the initial report on his findings in the Bergdahl case. The report will now be reviewed by the director of the Army staff and senior Army leaders.
"This will be a lengthy process," an Army spokesman wrote. "It would be inappropriate to speculate on the potential results or the amount of time the review process will take to complete."
When news of Bergdahl's release broke, his family and friends had hoped for a quick reunion. For nearly five years, the lives of Bergdahl's parents had been consumed by the plight of their son.
His father, Bob Bergdahl, has said he kept his clocks set to the time in Afghanistan. He grew a beard, to the dismay of many critics, to show solidarity with his son. Bob Bergdahl also taught himself Pashto, the language of his son's captors, to communicate directly with the Taliban.
In the days after his son's release, critics used those details to accuse Bob Bergdahl of sympathizing with the Taliban. Bergdahl's parents have declined all requests for interviews. Family friends say Bob Bergdahl has shaved his beard.
But the expected family reunion never materialized and the Bergdahl family soon stopped answering questions about why Bowe Bergdahl was refusing to see his parents.
Sources tell CNN that Bergdahl is now "communicating" with his parents, but a face-to-face reunion still has not occurred. The sources would not elaborate on how Bergdahl is communicating with his family.
Military officials have said Bergdahl has been given every opportunity to reunite with his family. Bergdahl's attorney, Eugene Fidell, declined to talk about Bergdahl's communication with his family.
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Bergdahl grew up among a tight-knit community of families in Hailey that home-schooled their children. Tim Kemery's son was one of Bowe's best friends.
Kemery said Bowe Bergdahl was raised in an intensely religious atmosphere with a strict code of conduct. Around age 16, Kemery said, Bergdahl left home and embarked on a series of adventures.
"No doubt it was some kind of rebellion," Kemery said.
But Kemery couldn't say if that childhood rebellion was still a source of tension between Bergdahl and his family. He said he also wonders why the soldier hasn't reunited with his parents.
"There may have been something there that was a bone of contention," said Kemery. "Maybe it's the debriefing (reintegration process) or because he feels like he has let them down or for some other unknown reason he just doesn't want to have that emotional recognition again of his parents."
Kemery said that as a child Bergdahl struggled to control his frustration and would often disappear for days at a time, building forts and hiking for miles into the Idaho wilderness.
Kemery said he sees a parallel between the young Bowe he knew and the soldier accused by fellow soldiers of walking off his military base in Afghanistan in 2009.
"Bowe did have a tendency to get really frustrated and just to walk off and throw up his hands," said Kemery.
Around Hailey, one often hears people asking the same question, will Bowe Bergdahl ever come back home? Bergdahl must wait to hear what military commanders will determine about his fate. Will he be charged with a crime? Will he be discharged?
Bergdahl's lawyer has said the soldier would like to continue his education. Tim Kemery hopes he makes time to visit Idaho.
"We have a hunting trip waiting for him. We are going to talk about things around the fire," said Kemery.