SWEETWATER, Tenn. -- A six-foot banner hanging from a gazebo in the center of this town of 6,000 says: "Ray fought for Sweetwater. Now let's fight for Ray."

People in Sweetwater have raised more than $18,000 for the defense of hometown Army Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard, 24, who faces murder charges in the death of three Iraqi detainees last year.

The 101st Airborne Division member is one of four soldiers charged with murder.

"Anybody that knows Raymond knows his character, and this is not Raymond," said his grandfather, Ron Bentley, 64.

The other soldiers have pleaded guilty and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors; Girouard, the squad leader, is in a military jail in Charleston, S.C., awaiting a court-martial to be held next month at Fort Campbell, Ky.

The soldiers initially told investigators that they shot the detainees during a May 9 raid in Samarra because they were attempting to flee and because commanders had given them orders to kill all military-age men.

Two of the soldiers now say that Girouard ordered them to cut the detainees free and shoot them as they fled. One soldier also said that Girouard cut him to make it look as if there was a struggle.

"None of it makes any sense," said Girouard's sister, Joy Oakes. "My brother has no motive to go over there and harm all of these people. It's all hearsay."

Oakes, 26, has set up an office, collected and sent to her brother newspaper clippings and letters from Sweetwater residents, and printed 500 bumper stickers that say, "We support our soldier Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard."

"The outpouring of people has just been wonderful," Oakes said.

In just two days, the people of Sweetwater raised $14,000 to hire a civilian lawyer. Most of it came from an offering at the First Assembly of God Church, where Girouard played drums.

"We're average Joes that work for a living. That's a miracle right there," said Julie Dennis, a mortgage broker who attends church with Girouard's family

Not everyone in town is backing Girouard. Ron Johnson, who runs Sweetwater Valley Antiques, said he will not donate because he does not know whether the charges are true.

"I think he's got a lot of support from people who know him, but the people who didn't know him, they're not going to want to be involved," Johnson said.

At the soldiers' Article 32 hearing -- the military equivalent of a civilian preliminary hearing -- the defense argued that a brigade commander, Col. Michael Steele, had given a command to "kill all military-aged males." Steele, who led Army Rangers during the 1993 battle for Mogadishu in Somalia, has denied the allegation.

As to what role that will play in Girouard's case, his attorney, Anita Gorecki, said: "I feel there was a miscommunication in his orders, but we'll know more about that in the coming weeks."

Bentley is already looking forward to his grandson's return to Sweetwater, hopefully to a hero's welcome.

"I consider him my hero," Bentley said. "I think Sweetwater considers him their hero."