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Sunday, April 6

Residents of POW's hometown ready to celebrate her return

By Christina Redekopp | The Herald Dispatch

PALESTINE, W.Va. - They don't know when it'll be, but it's going to be big.

Residents of Palestine this week saw their small West Virginia town step into the international spotlight with news of the rescue of native daughter Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been a prisoner of war in Iraq.

By Sunday, most of the satellite trucks and reporters were gone, and residents resumed normal activities like attending church and cutting grass. But foremost in many minds is Lynch's safe return home and the celebration that will follow.

"We're closing down the town and having a big party,'' said Trisha Rexroad of Elizabeth, W.Va., next to Palestine. "Greg (Lynch Sr.) called it a shindig. I just hope she's prepared for it. I don't think she'll be prepared for it.''

Lynch's immediate family arrived in Germany on Sunday and was reunited with the 19-year-old, who is resting at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where she is being treated for broken legs, a broken arm and other injuries.

Residents and family members said they do not know when the family will return or the specifics of festivities when they do, but they're expecting at least a parade and more media attention than the town has ever seen. ``I know the band is going to be prepared for anything,'' said Kevin Sears, varsity band director at Wirt County High School.

As quickly as the media descended upon the little town of only a few hundred residents, most of the satellite trucks, news reporters and photographers had returned by Saturday to their home offices in other parts of the country and the world.

Lynch had been listed as missing in action since March 23 when her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, had been ambushed near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

The Lynch house almost seemed lonely this weekend without the journalists who had set up camp around it last week. Yellow police tape around the yard and a new American flag and POW flag donated to the family waved to any passerby as a reminder of the celebration that ensued last week. Once residents found out Tuesday night that Lynch had been rescued, the town erupted in car horns, gunshots were fired into the air and a parade wound its way to the Lynch house.

Residents expect even more attention when Lynch returns home.

"I look for them to line the roads from Elizabeth to her home - which is about five miles,'' said Ramona Lynch, a second cousin to Gregory Lynch Sr.

She expects at least 200,000 to come to the town, including media and individuals who want to help celebrate.

"I don't know how they're going to get all those people in Wirt County,'' said Debbie Williams, president of the Wirt County High School class of 1980, of which Lynch's mother, Deadra, is a member. The county's population is 5,935.

Ramona Lynch, 64, happens to be the first Lynch listed in the area phone book, which may explain why she has taken at least 200 calls this past week and given at least 40 live interviews to media from London, Australia, Dublin and Japan. She even spent a ``good half-hour'' with Jay Leno from NBC's "The Tonight Show.''

"I'm so excited talking with them about her,'' she said. "It's given me a chance to witness around the world what God has done. In this county, we believe without him, she wouldn't be alive.

"We will never be the same again,'' Lynch says about her hometown. "What worries me is when she comes here. It's not going to be 8,000 or 10,000, it's going to be a couple hundred thousand (people). It's been quite a shock to our system. We've tried to cope with it the best you could. It doesn't seem real, it still doesn't seem real."

"Good Morning America'' was at Wirt County High School, said Ramona Lynch's granddaughter, Stephanie Lynch, 16.

"(Some students) think they're making too big a deal out of it, but I think it's great,'' she said.

At a news conference Saturday at Yeager Airport just before the Lynches left for Germany, Randy Coleman, communications director for the state Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the family wanted to express its appreciation to the media for staying behind the police line and being polite.

Already, the city of Charleston has put up green signs at the northern entrance of Elizabeth, and southern entrance of Palestine reading "Home of Jessica Lynch Ex POW.'' Churches, restaurants and other business marquees and handmade signs throughout the town display messages such as "Thank you God for saving Jessie.''

On Sunday, Cheryl Rexroad of Elizabeth planned a car wash at Wal-Mart in Vienna, W.Va., which was conceived as a benefit for the family even before the news of the rescue.

"I think it's a good thing for Jessica to a point,'' she said about the media attention. "I'm glad they're exposing that some of them do come home.''

Williams, who helped organize the car wash, said she's glad the family was able to see Jessica Lynch in Germany.

"I'm glad they're in Germany to have some private time with her,'' she said. "I think it's a miracle that she's alive.''