On TV, Spec. Joseph Darby's neighbors here in the Allegheny Mountains have heard him called a hero, a brave soldier who tipped off superiors to the abuses at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. And given the way small towns usually honor their soldiers, you might expect preparations for a proper homecoming, maybe even an impromptu parade.

But at the bar in the community center just down the road from Darby's house, near the trailer where his mother and younger brother live, none of the handful of patrons is in a parade kind of mood.

"If I were [Darby], I'd be sneaking in through the back door at midnight," says Janette Jones, who lives just across the border in Pennsylvania and stopped here at midday with her daughter for a Pepsi and a smoke.

What captures their attention this day is not Darby but the ubiquitous photo of another young man, Nicholas Berg, handcuffed and stooped in his orange jumpsuit, moments before he is beheaded by Islamic militants who claimed to be avenging the humiliations suffered by Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.

"Maybe if [Darby] hadn't turned them in, that boy would still be alive," Jones says.

"Come on, Mom, you can't blame him," says her daughter Janice, giving a friendly shove. "They'd hate us no matter what."

Janette Jones's husband was in the service, and so was her son-in-law. The Joneses live not far from Spec. Jeremy Sivits, a military police officer involved in the prison scandal who will face a special court-martial Wednesday. They knew Sivits, 24, growing up: He was a "nice guy, a quiet guy," says the elder Jones. She remembers he once helped her with the barbecue when the coals wouldn't light.

"Who knows what those boys were going through out there," she says. "The Iraqis did to us worse than we did to them."

In this mountain range where three states meet -- Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia -- everyone seems to have a brother or uncle or grandfather in the armed services, especially since the coal and steel industries collapsed. Every small town has a war memorial honoring local fallen soldiers. Veterans Day is a serious affair.

Wives used to trade stories about finding someone to talk to in Korea or the right chocolate bars in Germany. Lately they talk about the latest funeral. The shame brought on by the prison scandal centered on the 372nd Military Police Company, based one town over in Cresaptown, has only made them cling to each other more.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Darby for his "honorable actions." But Washington is a universe away. "They can call him what they want," says Mike Simico, a veteran visiting relatives in Cresaptown. "I call him a rat."

The sentiment is so deeply felt that even those who praise him do so only anonymously, or with many reservations.

"That boy's got a lot of courage," says Alan St. Clair, who lives down the road from Darby's high school home. "But when you go against your fellow man like that, I don't know. Some people won't like it."

The feeling is starting to bubble up elsewhere, too, among people who feel that what Darby did was unpatriotic, un-American, even faintly treasonous. "Hero A Two-Timing Rat," reads a headline from last week's New York Post. The story is about his personal life, but the metaphor lingers.

The Army says it's considering giving Darby a medal, although Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said it can't say when. It took the Army 30 years and the intervention of a dogged professor to give a medal to Hugh Thompson, who reported to his commanders what came to be known as the My Lai massacre.

In the meantime, members of Darby's family find themselves in a situation not unlike the Sivitses' -- refusing interviews, hiding from neighbors and strangers alike. Events have shoved them into history but not yet sorted out their individual fates.

Darby's mother, Margaret Blank, has had cancer and diabetes, and lost one eye. Her husband died a few years back. She now lives in a cramped trailer steps from a railroad track, at the edge of a line of trim clapboard houses.

"I'm proud of -- " Blank yells out her car window at a reporter as she pulls onto the grass by her trailer, having just picked up Montana, her younger son, from school.

Then abruptly she changes her mind "Get the [expletive] off my property. Now. Before I call the police."

"He said that he could not stand the atrocities that he had stumbled upon," Blank told ABC News on May 6. "He said he kept thinking, what if it was my mom, my grandmother, my brother or my wife."

For the family, however, pride is tainted with fear. His sister-in-law, Maxine Carroll, who's served as the family spokeswoman for the last couple of weeks, told reporters she's "worried about his safety," about "repercussions." "It scares you a little," she told the Associated Press, when asked if some might consider him a traitor. On May 8, she and her husband slipped away from their housing complex in Windber, Pa., to an undisclosed location.

An Army spokesman confirmed that Darby is on leave in the United States but wouldn't disclose where he is. At his home in Corriganville, the shutters are closed, a day's worth of mail sits outside the front door. A man ambles down the street to the tiny post office. Two houses down an older couple rock the afternoon away. The white church across the street seems empty.

Nobody answered knocks on the door or phone calls. There are three cars parked outside, each with a flag decal and one with a sticker saying "Support Our Troops," the only sign that a soldier might live there.

'Passionate and Committed'

At least two other soldiers complained to superiors about conditions at the prison, but Darby's act was the most cinematic. After looking at some of the graphic images, Darby slipped an anonymous note under a division officer's door, according to an account in the New Yorker magazine.

At a court hearing for another soldier, Darby testified that he felt "very bad" about what was going on in the prison and he "thought it was very wrong."

Darby, 24, joined the Army Reserve about three years ago, after a brief stint working as a mechanic in Falls Church. That decision brought him back to Corriganville, yet another spot in a region he'd bounced around most of his life.

His family had lived in a white duplex in the small town of Jenners, Pa., long enough for him to graduate from North Star High School. Back then he passed the school's hallway inspirationals: "You are responsible for your own actions," reads a sign at the entrance. "When you believe in yourself anything is possible."

In 12th-grade history, "Problems of Democracy," teacher Robert Ewing introduced his students to war. Ewing is a Vietnam vet, earnest and thoughtful, spends his afternoons cutting grass at the church. He coached Darby in football and wrestling, and sometimes drove him home after practice.

Lately he's been thinking about the lessons he gave the class on Vietnam. Ewing tried to convey to the class "what combat is really like" and how "no one knows how they'll really react once they experience it." He told them he'd been raised on John Wayne, "but the first time I shot at people I peed myself."

He recalls how "Darby quizzed me" after that lesson. Darby was an average B or C student, and he was not the eager-to-please type. "If Joe believed in something, he had no problems challenging me." Ewing admits that perhaps his memory is tainted by current events, but he definitely recalls Darby as "passionate and committed," he says. "When he believed in something, he defended it."

Ewing talked to the class about My Lai, and he was of two minds about it: "I said what they did was wrong, but that I'd been there and I understood why My Lai happened. Nineteen-, 20-year-old boys aren't ready to handle combat," he said. "I was 20 and I certainly wasn't ready to handle that."

Such are his instincts about what happened at Abu Ghraib. "Being a vet I can understand why young men and women who aren't properly trained do what they did, but that doesn't justify it," he says. "Joe did the right thing."

Like the handful of people who've spoken publicly about Darby, Ewing has been inundated with media requests for comment: ABC News's Peter Jennings called, a filmmaker wants him to consult. Most he turns down. He accepted one from Swiss TV because the producer said talking about Darby would help Europeans understand that the typical American soldier was not like those guards, that some acted heroically.

The sentiment is not universal among his colleagues. Often the school will find ways to honor former students who've served. But one teacher has a husband in the National Guard, one ex-teacher is in Iraq, "and they feel what Joe did might jeopardize them," says Ewing.

Last week Ewing's students discussed Darby in a current events section. They, too, expressed ambivalence. "They feel what he did might endanger their families," Ewing recalls.

"Some people are upset with what he did -- ratting them out -- and also because of what happened to those contractors, the beheading. They might say what the guards did pales in comparison," says Ewing. "But . . . if we as a country, as a culture, believe certain values then you can't excuse that behavior. If I ever do see him again, I'll tell him I'm very proud. And as time goes on, most Americans are going to realize that, too."

Ewing brings up the name of a universally accepted local hero, Cpl. Clark R. Kaltenbaugh, grandfather of a senior currently at the school. But Kaltenbaugh's story is in most ways the opposite of Darby's. It's recalled in "The 100 Best True Stories of World War II" -- a book long out of print. After his Marine detachment was ambushed by the Japanese in the battle for Guadalcanal, Kaltenbaugh dedicated himself to killing an equal number of the enemy: "I swore to God I'd kill seventeen of them with my own hands," and then, with giddy abandon, he does.

Friends who knew Darby before he enlisted in the Army all agree on one thing: "I'll give him this, he had a temper on him," said Norm Manges, a friend from high school. "He got in a lot of fights."

Manges remembers Darby once bragging that he would do better than Manges on a test. Manges tapped him on the head with a pencil, "and he got up and punched me twice, right in this cheek. He had a flash temper."

Darby was one of the handful of new kids in a school where everyone had known each other since kindergarten. And something about him provoked others. For most boys on the football team, hazing stopped after their sophomore year. But with Darby, the boys kept it up well into his junior year.

"He was arrogant," recalls Manges. "He seemed to want to fight you for some reason. We had to bring him down a notch."

When the news broke, Manges' girlfriend called and told him to look in the paper. "And it was strange, because he's the one who used to get picked on in football. I didn't think about it being courageous, it was just strange. I couldn't imagine the guy I knew was the guy who did this."

What Makes a Hero

In his book "On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a military psychologist, reports on a classified Air Force study conducted after World War II. The study looked for factors common to ace fliers who weren't reluctant to shoot and found one: Those who got into a lot of fights as kids made better fighters, because they weren't timid about confronting other people.

Standard Air Force heroes, says Grossman, are not the bullies but the people who were picked on by bullies and fought back. "Most of us would be paralyzed by what other people think, but they wouldn't care. This gives them a certain freedom to stand up for something."

Manges theorizes that Darby's action had something to do with the bullying. "Maybe he felt sorry for them, because he got picked on, too."

Manges is talking from the Ford body shop where he works as a mechanic. He's 25, about to get married, and in some ways high school seems fresh to him. There he and Darby were linked by a singular fierce competition, two of the poorest kids in the class fighting for a future. Now his friend is a million miles away, out there in history, and Manges is still trying to make sense of it.

"I would say it's not really a good thing or a bad thing," he says. "It's kind of bad because we're still over there and now Iraqis are revolting and that guy in Philly got his head chopped off, but it's kind of good because people should not be doing stuff like that.

"It all depends," he says, "how you look at it."

Joseph Darby, who reported comrades' mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, in a '97 photo.Islamic militants beheaded Nick Berg, above, in retaliation for abuses of Iraqi prisoners reported by Joseph Darby. Right, Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn were awarded belated medals by Maj. Gen. Michael Akerman for helping civilians during the My Lai massacre.