HOUMA, LA. — The crowd outside the funeral home in this Louisiana fishing town was so large that Peaches Volkem had to sit on top of her car to watch. The honor guard, stiff-faced and strong-chinned, slowly removed the flag draped over the coffin, folded it 13 times, and held it out to Sgt. Armand Frickey's grieving family.
"We knew all the boys," said Ms. Volkem, taking a break from her sales job at Gulf Fish Inc. next door. "They were like family, even though we weren't related. Houma is still very much a small town in many ways."
Three months ago, she was one of the hundreds of residents who lined the streets to wave flags and wish their National Guard unit a safe return from Iraq.
Six did return, but not the way this town had hoped. This week, the last of the group was buried beside the watery bayous and shady swamps they called home.
For such a small community to lose so many in one day makes the pain - and reality of war - far more immediate, residents say. Usually a roadside bomb that rips through an armored truck reaches into cities and towns across the United States.
But on Jan. 6, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle on patrol outside Baghdad held seven soldiers, six of whom were from southeast Louisiana's Company C of the 2nd Battalion, 156th Mechanized Infantry Regiment - a group that's taken part in every major US battle since the Civil War. It was the biggest single loss suffered by a National Guard unit in the Iraq war, officials say, and is believed to be the largest one-day loss of Louisiana troops in more than 50 years.
"The war overseas has shattered the tranquility of our tight-knit community," said the Rev. Joshua Rodrigue during one of the six funerals last week.
"The knock at the door is supposed to happen to families in another state, in another city, in another community."
Before they shipped out in October, Christopher Babin, Bradley Bergeron, Kurt Comeaux, Huey Fassbender, Armand Frickey, and Warren Murphy lived less than two hours from one another.
Raised beneath the lacy Spanish moss that hangs from the area's cypress trees, some fought it out on the high school football fields, others were bass-fishing buddies. And all trained together one weekend a month as part of the Houma-based Charlie Company, known as the "Black Sheep."
When they weren't training, these "weekend warriors" were driving trucks, working on tugboats, fixing air conditioners, and waiting tables around Houma, a town big enough for two Wal-Marts, but no Starbucks. The National Guard Armory, set in the middle of Houma's baseball fields, was used for everything from basketball practice to the town dance.
Louisiana has more residents per capita in the National Guard than any other state in the nation, and currently has 4,000 deployed for the Iraq war. Seeing them home safe is important: These are neighbors, parents, co-workers, and friends.
"There's no question that guardsmen are more intimately integrated into their communities, especially the small communities," says Gordon Mueller, president of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans. "Last week, they were your bank teller and today they are going to Iraq."
Dr. Mueller says it's been 30 years since war marched down Main Street, and America has forgotten how it feels. "It's times like these that test a community's resolve."
Here in the land of oil, shrimp, and sugar cane, the resolve seems even stronger since the roadside attack. Residents say they are filled with feelings of pride and grief - but not doubt.
"I haven't perceived a backlash of resentment," says Bill White, a research entomologist at the USDA Sugarcane Research Unit in Houma.
He watched Sergeant Frickey's honor-guard ceremony from the USDA office, which is directly across from the funeral home. It was especially difficult to take, he says, because his own son is in Iraq right now with the US Marines.
"I've been trying not to think about it too much, but this has really hit close to home," he says, kicking the ground with his rubber boots. "As I watched the funeral, I tried to imagine myself in those parents' situation. Would I accept it gracefully? I don't know."
Dr. White sees the loss of so many soldiers from one hometown as the result of a war increasingly fought by the National Guard. More than a third of US troops in Iraq are from part-time units. "This is something communities across the country are going to have to learn how to deal with," he says.
Still, says Mueller, the National Guard has historically been heavily involved in frontline action. During World War I, for instance, the Guard made up 40 percent of the US troops in France. And as World War II began, the US had only the 17th-largest army in the world - smaller than Romania's - "so the only thing we had when the war started was the National Guard."
In the days that followed the tragedy, residents of the bayou communities could be heard talking in hushed tones in supermarkets and banks about the last time they saw one of the six. Flags flew at half-staff, donations began to roll in for families in need, and children took a moment of silence before the start of each school day to remember the soldiers' sacrifices.
At the armory in Houma, the busiest place in town last weekend, local residents flooded in with food, flowers, and prayers.
Bob Dungan was one of them. He showed up with heaps of spicy jambalaya, savory catfish, and white beans and rice - supper for the honor guard who were officiating at funerals most of the day.
"It's not much, but anything I could do to help," says the owner of the Lunch Basket, with a grease-stained shirt and tired eyes. "The whole town is sad."