CLOVIS, Calif. — It has become a never-ending heartache within the hallways of Buchanan High School: news that another former student has died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Eight former students have been killed in the two wars, including a Marine sergeant who will be laid to rest Saturday after dying Dec. 2 of a head wound in Afghanistan.
The community in the heart of California's farm country has become all-too-familiar with the rituals of grief that have followed each death — tearful remembrances, flag-draped coffins, candlelight vigils. The school even built a memorial garden where the names of the fallen soldiers are cast in bronze to remember their service.
Austin Kohl is a Buchanan High senior who wants to enlist in the military and roams the hallways with a red and yellow Marines lanyard hanging from his pocket. The 18-year-old is nervous that he could go to war, nervous of his fate because of where he goes to school.
"We just lost another one. And most of them were from the branch that I want to join," he said Wednesday, his green eyes downcast, braces glimmering when he talks. "I think about it every day."
"I don't want to die but I don't want to be scared either," Kohl added.
'Don't know why'
Principal Ricci Ulrich says she's constantly asked why the wars have taken so many young men from the school, and she can't come up with an answer.
"I don't know why," she said. "I wish I had that answer."
More than 600 soldiers from California have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some high schools have suffered multiple losses, but Buchanan High seems to have been hit the hardest. And by contrast, the other high schools in Clovis have lost only two former students.
Buchanan is home to about 2,400 students, and the school grounds are bordered by a church, new beige houses behind the brick walls of subdivisions and a peach farm with a fruit stand. The neighborhood reflects values of this town of about 90,000 people: God, roots, family, the American Dream. The school colors are red, white and blue.
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"You see the patriotism of this place the minute you walk through the front door of Buchanan," said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Duke, an Army recruiter based in Clovis.
The first war tragedy struck in 2004 when a pair of best friends were killed, followed by the death of one of their brothers.
In 2007, three more soldiers who once walked the grounds at Buchanan High died overseas.
And this summer, so did 27-year-old Brian Piercy, a Marine 30 days shy of completing his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. His picture still rests at the school's memorial. Marine Sgt. Matthew Abbate, 26, became the eighth last week.
The lobby of the school's main office features a painting of three handsome Marines in their crisp white hats set against the backdrop of a waving American flag. They were the first three who died.
But with every new death, the school realized that it needed more to remember the troops to bring peace to people.
Ribbons and skinny trees
The Military Memorial Garden started out simply as the school's flagpole, situated atop a styled concrete block. The students helped design plantings and a pathway constructed in 2007 that have made it a solemn destination for students and community members alike.
The concrete block that anchors the American flag in the garden has become a frequent destination for local residents to drop off photos, poems and other mementoes to remember the former students.
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Ulrich is known as the "Mama Bear" around campus, a nod to the school's Buchanan Bears nickname. As she walks through campus, she greets each student, many by name, unafraid to put a hand on their shoulder. They talk sports or grades or futures, and the walls of her office are lined with photos of each graduating class.
In July, she walked through the triple-digit heat to the two trees at the front of the garden's walkway, put yellow ribbons on two skinny trees. It was the day Brian Piercy's death was announced.
The ribbons still were mounted on the trees when Ulrich stopped at the foot of the memorial this week and shed tears there as she has for years.
"It's a tight-knit community," she said. "You know their mothers, you know their worries. And to see their worst fears come true."
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