To W.Va. town, soldier is still its 'little girl'


PALESTINE, W.Va. - Anything her older brother could do, she could do, too. Baseball. Basketball. Childhood adventures through the hilly green cattle farms and hollows of Appalachia. No matter that she was barely 5 feet 4 and 105 pounds.

On July 19, 2001, the spunky little blond girl, as Jessica Lynch is known here, joined the Army, enlisting the very same day as her brother, Greg.

Yesterday, Pfc. Greg Lynch Jr., 21, stood on the wraparound porch of the family's white-and-red gingerbread-style farmhouse and pointed to a newspaper lying on his mother's truck.

"War Hits Home," announced the headline in The Parkersburg News above a photo of his smiling sister, wearing jeans and a striped sleeveless top.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, a supply clerk with the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, has been missing since her supply convoy was attacked in southern Iraq on Sunday. Five of the soldiers - but not her - later appeared as captives in footage aired on the Al-Jazeera network.

"I'd rather have my picture there than hers," Greg Lynch said. "I'd do anything to take her place."

In the classically close-knit community, where a number of teachers taught not only Jessica Lynch and her two siblings, but also her parents, Gregory and Deadra Lynch, war has hit home.

The staff at Wirt County High School in nearby Elizabeth, population 900, made more than 600 yellow ribbons, which appeared yesterday on flagpoles, tree trunks, signs, banks, the courthouse and on the lapels of everyone from schoolchildren to grocery store clerks. Hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil at the courthouse last night.

"It's a little surreal," said Carmine DeFeo, owner of a vehicle repair shop near Palestine, whose son played baseball on the Palestine Panthers with Jessica Lynch years ago. "A person you know as a little girl is suddenly a prisoner of war or worse. It kind of brings it all here. Everybody's heart is out for that family."

People here are accustomed to military deployments. With one of the state's highest unemployment rates - 15 percent in January - the county offers few job opportunities for youngsters. Almost everyone has a son, daughter or relative who joined the armed forces to secure an education and career.

The news of Lynch's disappearance was shocking, moreso because her unit was designated for maintenance and supply work, not combat. The group was supposed to travel behind the front lines, out of harm's way. Military officials have said the unit apparently took a wrong turn and ended up in enemy hands.

As did much of America, her parents first heard news of the attack over CNN on Sunday afternoon, but they did not receive official word that their daughter was missing until 11 that night, when a military official and state trooper visited their home.

Yesterday at the family home, up a long, woodsy one-lane road, relatives and friends gathered as the phone company installed a second phone line so the family can access news on the Internet more easily.

Her father put on a brave face and recalled his daughter's ever-present smile, her sense of humor and selflessness.

Father and daughter had kept up a running joke recently: He had always wanted an old Army jeep with a flat fender and would tease his daughter, who as a supply clerk was in charge of ordering parts and equipment, about getting him one. "It's on the way," she would repeat during their many conversations by phone and letter.

She wants to be a teacher and work with small children, her father said. Joining the military was a way of getting an education and experience. His youngest daughter, Brandi, 17, started the family trend when she met an Army recruiter at school and suggested he come to their house. Brandi was too young to enlist at the time - though she plans to do so soon - but her brother and sister decided to join, as did a neighbor.

"It was more like I'm young, what am I going to do here?" said their father, a truck driver. "The kids' only entertainment is going to the mall or to the movies. I was glad for them. I knew there wasn't anything in this community except for fast food restaurants that they could work at."

Jessica Lynch's career has been proceeding nicely, said Staff Sgt. James Grady, who recruited her. She has received one promotion, has re-enlisted for another four years and is due for another promotion upon her return from Iraq. She is scheduled to be deployed in Hawaii in November.

Grady worried that the family might blame him for what happened to her but was relieved that the Lynches seemed to feel no bitterness toward him or the Army.

Among those also praying for her safe return is her kindergarten teacher, Linda Davies, who remained friends with her and attended her softball and basketball games. During a trip home in January, Lynch visited with Davies' kindergartners, who "were really impressed that this little lady was an Army person," Davies said.

In her most recent letter to Davies, which arrived about a week and a half ago, Lynch wrote in beautiful handwriting on pastel paper: "One day I will be a teacher, standing in your spot."

She seemed happy with what she was doing, not at all afraid.

"I finally reached one of my goals and that was to travel," she wrote. "Just since this year 2003 I've been to Mexico, Germany and now Kuwait." With Hawaii coming up in the fall, she wrote, "I can say I've been to places that half of Wirt County will never see."

Though she had graduated almost two years ago, students at the high school still felt a deep connection to Lynch and her family, said Rodney Watson, one of her softball coaches.

On Monday, players on her former team spontaneously gathered around the pitcher's mound, held hands and prayed.

Despite their grief, most people interviewed yesterday said they wouldn't second-guess the war effort.

"We wave our flags and carry our Bibles," Watson said.

And they did not express bitterness that a disproportionate share of military service - and loss - seems to fall on financially struggling communities.

"It's always been that way," DeFeo said. "The people who are going to take care of the country and do the dirty work are on the lower rung. It's an opportunity that has risk. Yes, it's unfair, but that's the way it is."

Lynch's father and brother insist that she is alive.

"Her training and emotional strength and determination will get her through," her brother said. "She's got the background to keep her head on straight and do what she needs to to survive."

"If someone told her you can't do this, she'd show 'em that she could," her father said. "You've got to have will. You can't look at it like she's dead. We blank that out. We've got to keep hope up for her. If we lay down, we betray her."

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