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Wars take a heavy toll on one California school

The seventh funeral was Friday. The church was full, even strangers lined the streets and everyone in sight stopped what they were doing and bowed their heads as Brian Piercy’s body moved from church to cemetery — the same as they had done for six others.

Seven boys from Clovis’ Buchanan High Shool have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With Piercy’s death, Buchanan has the somber distinction of more war dead than any other school in California.

There’s no sure answer as to how such a thing could happen. But many people in this Central Valley city have a theory. They say Clovis is an extraordinarily patriotic community and its children are raised on God and country, duty and honor. They’re willing to serve and willing to die, the same as Clovis’ generations who went before them.

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Buchanan’s school colors are red, white and blue. The stadium is named Veteran’s Memorial. Former classmates and older siblings come back in uniform for campus visits. Friday night football games include a moment of silence for Buchanan’s fallen soldiers.

“The cheerleaders wear six stars on their uniforms. I guess it will be seven now,” said 15-year-old Julie Thaxter. “We’re not proud they died, but we’re proud they fought. It makes others from here even more ready to go and honor them. My brother wants to join. He’s 14 and he’s been set on it since he was 8.”

Julie works at a peach stand across from the 2,600-student high school. On one side of the street are shaggy-leafed peach trees. On the other, the big, suburban campus serving upper-middle-class neighborhoods that rooted where there were fields and orchards some 25 years ago.

She fiddles with the pink cellphone in her hand, then shyly shows her screen saver: Tony Butterfield, a blue-eyed Marine in dress uniform.

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“Two days from now, it will be four years since the day he died,” she said. “I was 11. He’s the son of my mom’s best friend. I knew him all my life.”

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The first funeral in 2004 was for Jeremiah Baro, 21, and Jared Hubbard, 22. Best friends since junior high, they joined the Marine Corps together, went to basic training together and died together, killed by a roadside bomb in Fallouja, Iraq, west of Baghdad.

Butterfield looked up to Baro and Hubbard and went to their funeral. He joined the Marines as soon as he graduated. Before going to Iraq, he asked that if something happened, that he be buried next to them. His body lies within 10 feet of their graves at Clovis Cemetery. Butterfield died in 2006 at the age of 19, trying to stop a suicide bomber driving a gasoline tanker filled with explosives in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

“You all mean the world to me. I hope I’ve made you all proud,” he wrote in his final letter to his family.

In February 2007, Rowan Dale Walter, 25, was killed in an apparent ambush after leaving a tank to help injured soldiers in Ramadi, Iraq, west of Baghdad. At the funeral, his young widow draped her body over the casket. Walter’s father gave a eulogy few have forgotten — a testament from a working-class dad to a free-spirited dreamer of a son.

“I’m looking at …bricks. Rowan, he’s looking at clouds,” Bryan Walter said.

Then in August 2007, the unthinkable: another Hubbard brother killed in combat. Nathan and Jason Hubbard joined the Army after Jared’s death. The brothers had always been close. Each had a tattoo of three interlocking ravens on their left biceps. Nathan said he was joining “to walk in Jared’s boots.” Their mother was pretty sure that older brother Jason -- married with a son -- was joining to keep an eye on Nathan.

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The two were in separate Black Hawk helicopters over Multaka, Iraq, north of Baghdad, when Nathan’s chopper went down because of mechanical failure. Jason’s unit recovered the bodies. He was a pallbearer at his 21-year-old brother’s funeral.

Nick Eischen, 24, died in his sleep Christmas Eve 2007 while serving at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Force Base, north of Kabul. A member of Buchanan’s class of 2001, he’d played on the same champion football team as Jared Hubbard. When the family couldn’t find the championship ring he loved, Buchanan football coach Mike Vogt gave them his. Eischen was buried with it.

Now, on Friday, a seventh funeral.

Brian Piercy, 27, was 30 days shy of completing his second tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was killed July 19 by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in the Arghandab River Valley in southern Kandahar province, on the Pakistani border. The former marching band drummer was the son of a Marine, and one of three brothers who joined the military in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Younger Buchanan students who’d had his mother, Carol, as a junior high school teacher flocked to the funeral of her son. Kids who are now in band, too young to have gone to school with Piercy, also attended, feeling how easily he might have been someone they knew. The minister giving the eulogy said the death wasn’t only a blow to Piercy’s family, but a blow to Buchanan, a blow to Clovis.

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“Seven. It’s an unfathomable number,” said Larry Grossi, owner of a gift and cabin decor store in Clovis’ Old Town shopping district.

“We’re not a small town anymore, but we’re connected. If you don’t know one of the families, you know someone who does,” he said on the day Piercy’s body arrived for burial.

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A middle-aged woman approached his cash register.

“You ready to be rung up, Delores?” he asked.

“Brian was our neighbor,” Delores Piers told him. “My kids baby-sat him. My first thought when I woke up this morning was, ‘Carol is on her way to the airport to pick up her son in a box.’ ”

“I know,” Grossi said. “It hurt this morning when I saw those motorcycles decorated with flags on their way to the airport — again. I’m proud, but it’s a heavy-hearted proud.”

Old Town is covered with American flags. Not just the half-mast ones flying for Piercy. But all-year symbols of Americana. There are baskets of glittery flags for sale. Little flags stuck in flower pots. Red, white and blue “We Believe in America” placards in business windows.

Cora and Bill Shipley’s corner gift store has flags and framed photographs of the fallen Buchanan grads in the window.

“It makes sense that they were all from here,” said Cora Shipley. “God, country and family, that’s what we believe in, in Clovis. They made us proud.”

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Vogt, the football coach, said the best part of his job is running into former students 10 to 15 years down the road and seeing who they grew into being.

“It hurts that I won’t get to talk to Jared and Nick and the others,” Vogt said. “But ‘We won’t forget’ is a Buchanan motto. The new kids coming through Buchanan will know about their sacrifice.”

The day before Piercy’s funeral, Buchanan High Principal Ricci Ulrich, Tony Butterfield’s family, Nick Eischen’s mom and about 40 others cut red-and-white plastic tablecloths into strips and tied them to every tree on the 3-mile route between the church and cemetery.

“We wanted Carol to look out that window and know our hearts were with her,” Ulrich said.

“This is the Buchanan legacy: When any other school or community has a loss, we’ll know what they feel. Our families will be their families. They’ll know that in Clovis, our hearts are with them.”

metrodesk@latimes.com


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