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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 March 2007, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Small town America's war dead
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Texas

About a fifth of the more than 3,200 US troops who have died in Iraq are from towns with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. But this has not deterred many of these small communities from continuing to support President Bush's policy on Iraq.

US soldiers in the Iraqi town of Buhruz in Diyala Province
Is small town America bearing the brunt of the war in Iraq?

Windthorst is a small Texas town that is getting smaller.

"There used to be around 100 dairy farms here when I was growing up," Nubbin Johnston told me, "Now there are only 50."

A large man, dressed in denim dungarees, Nubbin quietly dominates his living room, much as his gleaming, silver milk truck dominates his driveway.

Like most families in this community, originally founded by German Catholic settlers at the end of the 19th Century, the Johnstons live and breathe the dairy farming business.

Their shelves are home to herds of porcelain cows and their floor scattered with antique farming implements.

They have even stuck a cow print border along the top of their walls.

For the past few weeks, though, Nubbin and his wife Angela have been mourning a far more personal loss than that of the dwindling dairy farms: the loss of their son.

Eleven-mile cortege

Twenty-one-year-old Gary died in Iraq at the end of January, the victim of a bomb blast in Anbar province.

Map of Texas

On the day I met his parents and talked to them about his death, Gary's belongings had just arrived in the post from his marine unit's base.

A dozen plain, brown paper parcels lay, unopened on the kitchen table, sharing space with Tupperware containers, brimming with brisket, ham and cheese... the leftovers from Gary's funeral.

The food had been donated by local well-wishers but also by the military, as had the DVD of his funeral ceremony - a small town memorial on a very large scale.

The Johnstons sat me down in front of their computer to watch the edited version, keen for me to see exactly what kind of tribute their son had been paid.

It was one that was clearly rich in both emotion and numbers.

Windthorst is a town of less than 500, but the images of that day show an 11-mile funeral cortege, snaking its way through streets lined with US flags.

Such was the demand for seats that the marines had rigged up a video screen in the local municipal gym, where a solemn, packed hall watched a live feed of the service. Even that was not enough to accommodate all the mourners.

Sharing stories

As Angela viewed the images of her only son being laid to rest, she spoke calmly about the pride she had felt that day.

US President George W Bush speaks to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association 28 March 2007 in Washington
The president enjoys much support from America's rural communities

She joked about the pallbearers fumbling as they folded the stars and stripes, which had draped the coffin, and smiled as she pointed out one of Gary's comrades forced to wear his civilian clothes because he had forgotten his military cap.

Her husband, Nubbin, watched in silence.

Also in the room - some watching, others unable to - was a group of friends and neighbours who had been touched by Gary's death.

Their stories revealed the tight, interwoven fabric of Windthorst so typical of the small American towns which are bearing the brunt - in human lives - of the war in Iraq.

There was Bill and Viney Wolff, who had arranged their daughter's wedding to coincide with Gary's leave. Just the sort of gesture you would expect in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

And there was Gary Hoff, a Vietnam veteran who remembers other young men from Windthorst dying in that earlier conflict.

"That boy was like a son to me," he said, with tears rolling down his face.

Words that sound - as I read them - like a cliche, but when uttered by a proud, Texan farmer, believe me... do not.

Unwavering commitment

There was nothing cliched either about Kelly McCorcle, a school friend of the Johnstons whose son, Ben, is also a marine due to leave shortly for a tour of duty in Iraq.

Dabbing at her own tears she admitted that Gary's death had intensified her anxiety but she was adamant that it had not eroded her resolve or her faith in her son's mission.

Small town America still believes in this country, still believes in fighting for the freedom to worship whichever God you believe in
Nubbin Johnston

In fact, doubt was about the only emotion missing from the room.

Everyone believed that US troops should remain in Iraq to protect America from terrorists, to honour the dead, such as Gary, and to complete the job... even one whose definition was becoming less certain.

But Nubbin Johnston was certain of one thing.

"My brother died in vain in Vietnam," he said, his big frame shaking. "That won't happen to my son."

He took a breath, looked at his neighbours, then spoke for them.

"You want to know why small-town America is losing so many of its people in Iraq?" he asked, his voice quivering.

"It's because small-town America still believes in this country, still believes in fighting for the freedom to worship whichever God you believe in. Our young men and women - like Gary - have been sacrificing their lives for this for 200 years. This is America."

It is one side of it, at least. A side that is often forgotten in the opinion polls and the foreign policy debates, but one that continues to sacrifice much for a war it still supports.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 March, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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