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A West Virginia town's military conflict

Jessica Lynch wanted so much to teach kindergarten in the same small-town classroom where she had learned her ABCs. She wanted to raise children of her own in the folding foothills of Appalachia, among deer, by the river.

But to stay, Jessica first had to leave.

To teach kindergarten, she first had to learn to shoot a rifle, to salute, to march, to don a gas mask in seven seconds.

She shipped out to basic training right after high school because joining the Army was the best way she knew to get ahead in life. After a few years of service, she would earn a free college education -- and she could come home a teacher.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, was ambushed in Iraq last week as she drove supplies to the front line. Along with seven others from the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Co., she is listed as missing in action.

As her family awaits news, Jessica's friends tie yellow ribbons to tree trunks and telephone poles. They cry some. They pray a good deal. But they do not question why Jessica had to join the Army.

Patriotism runs fierce here. So does pragmatism.

Even with the frightening images from Iraq invading their TV sets day and night, some parents here still say they want their children to join the service. And some children still say they want to enlist.

"There are no jobs around here," says Amanda Davis, 18, who will leave for basic training this summer -- with Jessica's younger sister, Brandi, as her "battle buddy." A yellow ribbon is pinned to Amanda's black Army T-shirt.

"The military is a good option," Amanda says.

The unemployment rate in Wirt County runs about 15%, more than double the national average. The poverty rate approaches 20%. Since the trailer factory shut down a decade ago, there has not been much local industry, other than logging and farming. The military offers 18-year-olds a salary, health insurance, regular promotions, a free education, travel, adventure.

"It seems like a good thing to go into," says Chasity Winnell, 16, who has her heart set on the Air Force.

For Amanda, hefting an M-16 in support of her country seems the surest route to her lifelong goal: a career practicing law. "I guess I did have other options. I could have tried for scholarships. I could have worked my way through college. But it seems like such a hassle," she says.

Then she adds the explanation that most everyone here gives for enlisting: "The Army offered me a real good deal."

That's why Jessica Lynch's older brother joined the Army after graduation. He is serving a six-year tour, studying aviation electronics at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. It's also why Jessica's younger sister, Brandi, enlisted even before she finished her senior year. It was Jessica's motivation too.

"She knew the money was a little tight," says her father, Gregory, who drives a tractor-trailer. "We might have been able to pay for college, but it would have been rough. The Army offered her what she wanted."

This rugged patch of West Virginia is a community of well-rooted families; four and even five generations live as neighbors in the wooded hollows, growing tobacco or raising beef cattle in patches of pasture where the trees have been cleared. That strong bond to the land, and to family, makes it difficult for many to move to a big city in search of jobs.

Yet, often those who would recoil at moving an hour away are willing to deploy halfway around the world. The military commands tremendous respect here. Service is often a proud family tradition, passed on if not father to son, then cousin to cousin, brother to sister. So the Army feels like a hometown institution. And the life of a soldier feels comfortably familiar.

"Remember, this is the Mountaineering State. We're used to hunting and fishing and spending a lot of time outdoors. Joining the Army is just about like being at home. The only difference is, you have to put on a uniform," says Jerry Patton, a spokesman for Army recruiters across the state.

Bobbi Moore, a school bus driver, is already touting the benefits of military life to her 12-year-old son. She knows she will not be able to send him to college on her $18,000-a-year salary. She doubts he'll have the grades for a scholarship. In the Army, he can learn a trade. "He can prepare for a career," she says.

Moore holds a stack of yellow fliers reminding the community of a candlelight vigil for Jessica Lynch.

"I understand the danger," she says. "My son could very well be in just what Jesse's going through."

She does not waver. She wants him to enlist.

"It will keep him out of the minimum-wage class," she says.

Struggling communities like this one often provide rich recruiting terrain for the military. Across the country, recruits for active duty and reserves come mostly "from families in the middle and lower-middle socioeconomic strata," according to a Pentagon study.

The impoverished state of West Virginia has long boasted one of the top rates of military service; in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm, it ranked in the top five states in the percentage of residents in the armed forces, Patton said.

Indignant that low-income communities and ethnic minorities take on a disproportionate share of military service, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-New York) has introduced legislation to reinstate the draft. His bill has little chance of passing. Few here think it should.

"In my opinion, an all-volunteer force is the way to go, because then you know everyone is serving because they really want to be there or they really need to be there," says Keith Van Noy, a recruiter for the Navy.

Van Noy started out in the service six years ago as one of the "need to be there" recruits. He had lost his college scholarship and was working two and three jobs -- guarding prisoners in the county jail, mowing lawns on local farms -- to pay tuition. "I ran out of money," he says.

So he enlisted. And found he liked it enough to stay on even after he earned his all-expenses-paid degree.

In his blue-dress uniform, the brass buttons buffed to gleaming, Van Noy talks easily to local residents between bites of apple pie at Mike's Place, the best (and only) place for burgers in the county seat of Elizabeth.

With just 900 residents, Elizabeth looks every bit the charming, all-American town. A brick courthouse with white pillars and a bell-tower cupola anchors the village green. Red, white and blue bunting hangs from the balcony. Dozens of small flags line the daffodil bed.

Outside Elizabeth, the county is sparsely populated, with a mix of trailers and ranch houses tucked in the canyons that locals call hollows. The Lynches live in Palestine, which has its own post office but just one business, a tumble-down secondhand store called "The What-Not Shop," crammed with ceramic roosters, ancient sewing machines and stuffed animals.

The fishing in the area is great. So is the deer hunting. But there's not much for a teen to do, other than join a local sports team or play in the much-honored school band. The nearest mall is 30 miles away. Van Noy sees a lot of recruits itching to see the world.

Jeremy Smith, 17, counts himself among them.

West Virginia offers college scholarships of $3,000 a year to students with a 3.0 grade-point average in high school. Jeremy says he probably could secure one. But the money is good only for schools in the state. "I want to go away," he says.

Jeremy plans to attend a military college in Alabama for two years so he can enlist in the Army or the Air Force as an officer. "A second lieutenant," he says, a shy smile crossing his thin face.

His brother, three years older, is a crew chief for F-16 fighters at a base in New Mexico.

"Oh yes, I worry," their mother, Jackie, says as she closes out the cash register at the Subway sandwich shop in Elizabeth. "But I let my boys make their own choices."

To ensure that those choices are informed, Wirt County High School principal Kenneth Heiney makes sure every student goes on at least three field trips to local colleges before senior year.

Just 10% of Wirt County adults have bachelor's degrees -- compared with one in four adults nationwide. So it's important, Heiney says, that his students understand that "college is open to everybody, that it is within their reach." He has invited professors from West Virginia University to teach classes to his juniors and seniors. Motivated students can earn up to 19 college credits, saving their parents as much as a semester's tuition.

The intensive outreach has been successful: Heiney said about two-thirds of Wirt County's high-school graduates now go on to college or trade schools. But the tug of the military remains strong. In a typical senior class of 65 to 85 students, six or seven will enlist, Heiney said. Many visit school on their home leave, talking up the pride -- and the practical benefits -- of armed service. Jessica Lynch came back over Christmas, full of stories about her life as an Army supply clerk.

Before she enlisted, Jessica had never been even the 90 miles south to the state capital of Charleston. The Army had taken her to South Carolina, to Virginia, to Texas, with the promise of travel abroad to come. "She wanted to see the world while she was still young," her father says, "and she's sure done that."

"She's had a ball," adds her aunt, Margie Lynch.

Jessica re-enlisted for four years just before she was sent to the Persian Gulf.

She told her family she was due for a promotion when she returned. More exciting yet: Her next deployment was to be in Hawaii.

In a letter to the local kindergarten teacher a week after she arrived in Kuwait, Jessica offered to be a pen-pal for the 5-year-olds. She wrote of how much she wanted to come back and teach.

She wasn't ready to return quite yet, though: "I can say I've been to places half the people in Wirt County will never see," she wrote.

That blithe sense of adventure worries some local combat veterans, who fear that recruiters tempt teens into overlooking the danger of military service. Jessica, for instance, told her parents that as a supply clerk, she would be far from any fighting. But on a mission Sunday to bring equipment to front-line troops, her convoy came under attack. Two soldiers died; five are prisoners of war; eight, including Jessica, are missing.

"You see those ads on TV continuously and it looks like an easy way out," said Mike Bumgarner, 55, a Vietnam veteran who now raises beef cattle. "People don't know what war is."

The Lynch family knows. War is anguish. But standing in front of his house in Mulberry Run hollow, Gregory Lynch expresses no regret.

"You can't blame the Army for what happened," he says. "They gave her a good deal."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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