BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA. A TOWN AT WAR (2004): Iraq comes to Cajun country

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BREAUX BRIDGE, LOUISIANA. A TOWN AT WAR (2004): Iraq comes to Cajun country

Breaux Bridge in Louisiana rarely makes the news. It's not that kind of place. The small town in earshot of the multi-lane highway between Lafayette and Baton Rouge is on the bayou, that eerily picturesque region where cypress trees and Tupelo gums grow out of the endless expanse of brown, still water.

This is Cajun country. Most people here are direct descendants of the original French-speaking settlers, the Acadians, who arrived from the colony of Acadia in Nova Scotia in the late 18th century.

Cafes in town have names like Cafe de mes Amis, and a flattened, slow southern variant of French is frequently spoken. People are predominantly Catholic and proud of their cajun traditions.

They are also independent and see themselves as a people apart. Some grew up thinking of outsiders as "Americans".

Breaux Bridge, population around 7300, is acknowledged as the crawfish capital of the world. That and its unique history are its claims to fame, although it is also known in some circles for Jake Delhomme, who plays for the Carolina Panthers football team. All over town are printed signs, "We love Jake".

Breaux Bridge has taken a couple of major blows this past fortnight. Unseasonal and heavy downpours meant the rivers, lakes and bayou rose.

"You could take your boat right down this street here," says Norbert LeBlanc as he sits in Cafe Jacqueline (pronounced Shack-leen) on Rue Principal.

The flooding has receded, although the sky remains threateningly black, so the cafes and antique shops which make up what might be called the centre of town -the traffic lights at Rue Principal and Rue Pont - are keeping sandbags by their doors.

But Breaux Bridge has just taken another blow, one more unexpected than the rains which frequently dump on this area of steamy south Louisiana.

2004_0516Image0055The streets here, as in most of Louisiana, are festooned with American flags. But they also have yellow ribbons tied to trees in front gardens or on porches.

Breaux Bridge, with a National Guard base nearby, is giving up its own to the war in Iraq. Around 350 reservists from the 256th Infantry Brigade are being progressively shipped off to Fort Hood in Texas.

After further training they will be sent to a dry and dusty country which couldn't be more different from water-logged Acadiana.

From Breaux Bridge town, there have been maybe 15 to 20, and about the same from the neighbouring parish of St Martinville, says Breaux Bridge mayor Jack Dale Delhomme, a beetle-browed former teacher and basketball coach, who is also the proud uncle of footballer Jake.

Delhomme is a plain speaker whose business card has a crawfish on it. He knows the effect the recruitment of the reservists will have on his town.

"Cajun people are a very close culture and are very people-oriented, so this is hurting a lot of our families. People are gonna cry. Every time they watch television or read a newspaper, they are gonna wonder about their children. And we will now be looking more closely."

The town has a tradition of honouring its soldiers. Delhomme points to the memorial to Korean and Vietnam dead opposite his office, and the photographs acknowledging former servicemen in the hallway of the council building.

But he expresses concerns that you hear widely, even in places as proudly patriotic as this.

2018_JackDelhomme"We always look at the National Guard as a last resort which is here to defend the country. The National Guard is more for hurricanes and riots, not for sending people overseas."

After Vietnam, the National Guard wasn't popular, but as years of relative peace followed, young people, notably women, started taking advantage of the help it offered in paying college tuition fees.

In an area like this, that was an attractive option. The biggest problem Delhomme's region faces is unemployment. There are no major industries and none have expressed interest in setting up there. Acadians from the "oak and pecan and dark dirt country" haven't traditionally been interested in education. They could live off the bayou.

"Come out here at night," says Norbert LeBlanc as he steers his boat on Lake Martin between 300-year-old cypresses draped with spanish moss and looking like fading dowagers, "and you can see hundreds of eyes looking back at you."

2004_0516Image0036People here are used to water. LeBlanc, who hunted gators for 25 years and puts down 100 crawfish nets a day, jokes he can't leave Louisiana because his toes dry out and crack.

But those are the old ways, and while bayou tourism and crawfish cultural festivals bring in money, in a rapidly changing world an education is necessary.

Many young people have signed on as reservists. As have a number of older guys, says Delhomme.

Hell, it ain't difficult and you get a small pension after a while.

"I mean, what is it? You drill once a month and go to camp for two weeks. That's nothing."

But now those young people are being taken overseas to fight in a conflict which is becoming increasingly unpalatable.

Ironically the Acadian region is strongly Democrat, yet supports the President in this war.

September 11 changed everything - "You don't attack America," says Delhomme, his eyes narrowing, and Cajun people "like a tough guy that doesn't give a damn."

"They like Bush's image. He's got that macho thing like, 'Mess with us and we'll come after you. We like to fight down here, and we have that team spirit too. Yeah, we'll fight you."

Delhomme knows his people and says Americans like a fight with a knockout. They don't want indecision and if the war drags on with no clear result, if jobs are lost because of spending on the military, then Bush will fall into the same trap as his father.

But with revelations about prisoner abuse, the beheading of American Nick Berg and confidence in the President at its lowest level since September 11, the reservists from Acadiana are leaving home against an uncomfortable backdrop.

As the troops were being cheered off with speeches by politicians and military leaders in Lafayette (Major General Bennett C. Landreneaux describing them as "extraordinary patriots") there were also tears and the fears of families about their sons and daughters. Delhomme knows it.

"People round here are starting to get anxious now."

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