SWEETWATER, TENN. — The first fundraiser was down at the First Assembly of God church, where Bonnie Cleveland stood in the doorway with a collection basket in hand. She told everyone that the church music group's former teen drummer, Ray Girouard -- now Staff Sgt. Raymond L. Girouard -- was in deep trouble.
The Army has charged Girouard, 24, with ordering the slayings of three Iraqi detainees in May, then orchestrating a coverup. He's in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., awaiting court-martial.
"He's been fighting for our freedom, and now he needs our help," Cleveland, a schoolteacher and the wife of a dairy farmer, told fellow parishioners.
By the end of the service late last month, parishioners had contributed $6,600 to help hire a civilian lawyer for a church member who became an Army Ranger and served two tours in Iraq.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary outpouring of cash and tributes from this idyllic east Tennessee community of 6,000. The fund now stands at $19,000, fattened by residents who cannot reconcile the Army's portrait of a calculating killer with their memories of a polite and caring boy.
Sense of betrayal
Sweetwater, a conservative community where American flags fly on porches and many residents are veterans, now finds itself at odds with the military. Many here say the Army has betrayed a young patriot who volunteered to fight for his country.
"The military kind of made it personal," said Tammy "Tot" Chapman, who's helping organize an antique car rally as a fundraiser. "When you mess with our boys, you have to deal with us."
Post 106 of the American Legion in Sweetwater is coordinating the contributions. Lloyd Langley, the post vice commander, says Girouard is being "railroaded" by the military.
"A soldier ain't worth a dime if he don't carry out his orders, and that's exactly what Ray was doing over there," Langley said.
Girouard, who enlisted right out of high school, is charged with premeditated murder and conspiracy. Three other soldiers also were charged in the deaths, which occurred during a combat mission May 9 on a marshy island on Tharthar Lake, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Girouard's photo now graces bumper stickers, storefronts and restaurants in Sweetwater. A gazebo on the narrow main street bears a banner that reads, "Staff Sgt. Ray Girouard Fought For Us. Let's Fight For Him."
Just after the church fundraiser, Girouard's sister Joy Oakes delivered a passionate defense of her little brother at a rally Jan. 27 at City Hall, where residents contributed $1,700.
"The Army is doing everything they can to smear his name, his reputation and his legacy," she said that day. But the "truth will come out, and it will set Ray free," she added.
Oakes, 26, a mother of three, has set up what she calls the Ray Room in a bedroom of her grandfather's home. Inside is a computer where she maintains a website supporting her brother, stacks of court documents and a "media book" with news clippings about the case.
"This case is my whole life -- I live it, I breathe it, 24 hours a day," she said.
Girouard and his two sisters were raised by their maternal grandfather, Ron Bentley, an Air Force veteran, after their mother died when Girouard was 6. Bentley calls his Ranger grandson "a true American hero." A sign on his front door reads: "Terrorism Is A Disease. Rangers Are The Cure."
Bentley says he is furious at the military for prosecuting Girouard for "doing what he was sent over there to do."
"What really got me going was seeing a picture of Raymond in shackles -- after all he's done for his country," Bentley, 64, said as he sat hunched over his living room table, feeling faint from chemotherapy for lymphoma.
As Bentley spoke, Oakes answered a cellphone call. It was Girouard, calling from the brig on a $1-a-minute phone card. Oakes said he told her, as he had before, that he never ordered anyone to kill detainees and did not take part in a coverup.
She said Girouard also told her that his brigade commander, Col. Michael Steele, held "a big hoo-ah rally" the night before the mission and gave orders to kill every military-age male on the island. Steele's lawyer, Maj. Kris Poppe, said Steele "categorically rejects" the allegation.
A codefendant, Pfc. Corey R. Clagett, gave a similar account in a phone interview in October. But Jan. 25, Clagett entered a plea agreement with the government and testified that Girouard, the squad leader, told his men to kill the three Iraqis they had just detained.
Clagett said he and Spc. William B. Hunsaker cut plastic handcuffs off the men, told them to run, then shot them. He testified that Girouard punched him in the face and cut Hunsaker with a knife to make it appear that the detainees had attacked the soldiers while attempting to escape.
Hunsaker, the first to accept a plea deal, also testified against Girouard. Hunsaker and Clagett got 18 years. Girouard could get life without parole if convicted.