HOUMA, La., Jan. 10 -- Bradley Bergeron grew up, as they say around here, "way down on the bayou," a sliver of high ground south of town called Upper Little Caillou. Bergeron was no homecoming king, no valedictorian, just a nice kid who blended in with his class. But he was a star on that day last October when the "Black Sheep," this town's National Guard unit, left for Iraq.
The 2nd Battalion, 256th Infantry Brigade's call-up for overseas duty was a big deal. There were parades and speeches. The high school band performed, and the local government handed out American flags. The Black Sheep drew a crowd.
Relatives of soldiers fighting in Iraq try to comfort one another at the armory in Houma, La., as they hear about the six deaths.
(Matt Rose -- New Orleans Times-Picayune Via AP)
Now this heavily Cajun city of shrimpers and oil riggers, an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans, is trying to figure out how to handle another communal gathering: a funeral for the boys they just sent off. Bergeron and five of his fellow Louisiana Guardsmen died in an explosion on Thursday in Baghdad while they were searching for weapons stockpiles. Half of them came from Houma, a city of 30,000, and the rest from towns nearby.
After more than a thousand deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq, these six losses may give a glimpse of the future. As the United States relies more and more on the National Guard and the reserves, the moments of sharpest misery at home can tend to become concentrated in one spot, rather than spreading out. Troops from the same regions in the Guard and reserves fight together -- and sometimes die together -- unlike in regular military units, which tend to be made up of men and women who come from widely scattered parts of the country.
"These units are localized," said Ken Delcambre, an Army veteran and principal at South Terrebonne High School, where Bergeron graduated. "If they were using regular Army, it would be different. . . . The true price of what freedom costs -- it hits you in the face."
The cluster of deaths in south Louisiana -- the most suffered by a National Guard unit in a single incident during the Iraq conflict -- has stoked the increasingly impassioned debate about the Bush administration's reliance on Guard and reserve troops in Iraq.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who was in Iraq on an inspection tour when news broke about the deaths, has spent the days since urging the Pentagon to increase the size of the full-time military and rely less on part-time soldiers.
"Our troops are stretched -- they will, in fact, break," she said over the weekend. "You cannot do democracy on the cheap."
Nor can you clean up after a big storm or a flood back home. At a national governors conference last year, several governors -- including Mark Sanford, a conservative Republican from South Carolina and an Air Force reservist -- fretted that the huge number of deployments might leave states understaffed in the event of a major natural disaster.
More than a third of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are members of the National Guard or reserves. At least 162 members of the National Guard and 107 reservists have been killed in the conflict, and the death totals for part-time soldiers have been rising, from three in January 2004 to a high of 26 in November. Already, since the beginning of this year, 12 have been killed.
Hunt Downer of Houma, a former Louisiana state legislator and gubernatorial candidate who is now the second-ranking officer in the state National Guard, said the deaths rattled his tightknit home town. Downer's children had socialized with most of the Guardsmen who died, and he went to school with some of their parents in this town where lyrical Cajun names -- Bergeron, Molaison, Gaudet -- are everywhere. After visiting each family, Downer said, he was amazed at their resiliency.
" 'He died doing what he loved to do,' " Downer recalled several of the mothers telling him. "It was poignant."
The Black Sheep who left Houma to cheers were a typical unit, filled with construction workers, cops and teachers. Bergeron, 25, made his living as a heating and air-conditioning technician before being called to Iraq. He signed his name with the nickname "Mickey Mouse" on a poster hung in the armory. His mother, Angela Bergeron, told the Associated Press that he planned to ask his girlfriend to marry him when he returned home.
Spec. Warren Murphy, 29, who died in the same explosion that killed Bergeron, was a tugboat deckhand; Sgt. Christopher Babin, 27, drove a cement truck; Spec. Armand Frickey, 20, was the assistant manager at a pizza place; Spec. Huey Fassbender, 24, worked at a restaurant. The oldest of them -- Sgt. 1st Class Kurt Comeaux, 34 -- was a probation officer.
Their photos were tacked to a makeshift memorial Monday -- 11 little American flags and a pile of bouquets at the base of the big flagpole outside the National Guard Armory. Each face is a study in stoicism, except Frickey's, that is -- he's grinning wide.
A handwritten note, clipped to a bouquet, reads: "Love and prayers for the living and the dead. Thanks for the freedom." A red-headed woman stands two steps away, quietly weeping into the shoulder of a sturdy state trooper.
Joining the National Guard is a big thing here. Everyone seems to know someone who is a Black Sheep or was a Black Sheep or wants to be a Black Sheep.
"It may be because of our culture of hunting and fishing," Delcambre said. "In my opinion, everybody should serve."
He doesn't think the deaths will sour the kids who tromp around his school on military service. The college money and the extra paycheck can look pretty good to a lot of kids here as the shrimping industry shrinks and jobs get harder and harder to come by.
The recruiting poster in the armory has its appeal, too. "You can" is written above a photograph of a soldier rappelling. Beneath, it says: "and still make it home for dinner."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.