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Saturday, April 12

Lynch's county basks in limelight from their hometown hero

By Jean Tarbett | Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch

ELIZABETH, W.Va. - American flags line the streets of Elizabeth, a town of 2,600 people just a few miles from Pfc. Jessica Lynch's hometown of Palestine.

Yellow ribbons are tied to doors, mailboxes and trees in the yards.

The ribbons and flags were up before 19-year-old Lynch was declared missing after her supply unit was ambushed March 23. And the flags and ribbons will stay up until Wirt County's troops serving overseas, about 60 of them, are home.

Lynch's home county is a place where patriotism is "instilled within people,'' said Ken Heiney, principal of Wirt County High School.

It's a place where students in the high school have a few moments of silence at the end of the school day to remember American troops. Where people know one another. And if they don't, they act like they do, treating strangers and old friends alike with smiles, handshakes and friendly conversation."

Some residents have said if you live in Wirt County and don't know Jessica Lynch personally, you know her family or have a child who went to school with her.

"It's a big, big family. Some people call it a clan,'' said Ramona Lynch, Jessica's third cousin. She worked with Jessica's mother, Dee Lynch, and watched the Lynch children grow up in pictures.

"It doesn't matter what your last name is. You're related to the Lynches,'' she said.

The community fostered the fun-loving but gritty soldier who captured the world's attention when she was rescued April 1 in an Iraqi hospital.

Greg Lynch, a truck driver, and his wife, Dee, are "good, solid, country people'' who raised their three children, Greg Jr., 21; Jessica; and Brandi, 18, the way they should, Ramona Lynch said.

"They'd give you the shirt off their back,'' said Deidra Starcher, a family friend who used to ride all-terrain vehicles with Jessica Lynch's brother, Greg Jr. "They give you a windshield wave when you go by. They're just really friendly people.''

Residents describe the Greg and Dee Lynch's oldest daughter as everything from shy to scrappy.

"I don't think she had one enemy,'' said her cousin, Matt Lynch, who graduated high school with her. "She was always outside with us, riding four-wheelers or just running around in the woods.''

The same girl who would catch a fly ball in right field wanted to become a kindergarten teacher, a dream that prompted Jessica Lynch to join the U.S. Army. She left just days after graduating from high school in 2001. At her graduation, she wore combat boots underneath her white gown.

Some who know the private said they were surprised to hear she joined the military.

"It was mostly because she's a little-bitty thing, skin and bones,'' said her friend Miriah Duckworth. "But it's the little ones you have to look out for.''

In the nine days that Jessica Lynch's whereabouts were unknown, Wirt County, with about 5,500 people, did what it always does: It pulled together.Residents brought Greg and Dee Lynch so much food they had to get a second refrigerator to put on the porch, Duckworth said.

And prayers were constant. People who don't pray, prayed, said William Stutler, preacher at the local Presbyterian church.

"I'm amazed at God,'' said Cindy Duckworth, Miriah's mom. "He's so wonderful. Those guys that went in to get her, He had His arms around them.''She had a guardian angel, a lawyer named Mohammed, said Penny McVay, Elizabeth's town clerk. Mohammed is the Iraqi man who saw Lynch in Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah where his wife is a nurse. He reported his discovery to the U.S. Marines.

When Lynch was reported missing, national attention zeroed in on this West Virginia community, which has no cell phone signal and just one pay phone in the heart of town.

Beth Edwards, a teller at WesBanco Bank in the center of Elizabeth, can peer through the bank's large windows to see what's going on in town. In the past couple weeks, one of her favorite pastimes has been to watch reporters wandering about, cell phones to ears and perplexed looks on their faces as they search for a signal.

Residents have heard from reporters, touched Americans and businesses that want to contribute everything from cars to flags.

"Ross Perot has called and called and called,'' County Assessor Debbie Hennen said. "He wants to help.'' WesBanco has set up a fund to accommodate all those who want to donate.

"It's like watching a movie and you find yourself in the middle of it,'' Ramona Lynch said. "And you don't know how you got there.''

Moments after Miriah Duckworth finished calling friends with the news of Jessica Lynch's rescue, her phone started ringing, like the phones of about every Lynch in the phone book.

Ramona Lynch said she has gotten calls from Australia, London, Texas and elsewhere. She talked to Jay Leno for about a half hour one day. He just called to talk to someone in the family.

And Greg Lynch Jr., whose name was followed more than once by the word "ornery'' when talking with folks around town, has been a pro, they said.

"I smile to think that a Wirt County graduate gets up in front of a microphone and takes control like that,'' Heiney said.

While residents contemplate the chaos of Lynch's homecoming and pray for her healing, many say they're using the media attention as an opportunity to tell of the Lord's work.

"When you learn to trust the Lord, that's a valuable lesson,'' Ramona Lynch said. "It's like a near-death experience for all of us - you learn to appreciate family and friends, and material things don't mean as much."

Heiney hopes Lynch's bravery, endurance and rescue are a lasting lesson for his students.

"I hope the thing they get is pride that they are from Wirt County and in the people they know, such as Jessi,'' he said. "I hope they learn that heart and soul - and what comes from within - are what really counts.''