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Monday, March 22

In Lynch's home a year later - changes in spirit

By Bob Withers | The Huntington Herald-Dispatch

WIRT COUNTY, W.Va. - It was a year ago Tuesday that Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch was captured in Nasiriyah, Iraq, after her unit was ambushed in the early days of the Iraq war.

Lynch and five other soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company based at Fort Bliss, Texas, were taken prisoner and 11 soldiers were killed in the attack.

For 10 days, the tiny rural West Virginia communities of Palestine and Elizabeth swathed their properties in yellow bows and agonized in prayer for Lynch's release, which came just after midnight April 2, 2003, Iraqi time.

It was then that reporters and their notebooks, cameras, microphones and satellite trucks clogged the two towns and the hollow leading to the Lynch home.

``You couldn't walk down the street without somebody stopping you and asking any kind of question,'' says Wirt County Circuit Clerk Misty Campbell.

Today, the area reveals little evidence of last year's uproar.

But there have been changes - most of which, people say - are internal; hidden from the media's scrutiny, but there nonetheless.

``We've all been touched by the war, the continuing loss of life and the miracle that is Jessica,'' says Wirt County Assessor Debbie Hennen. ``We think about things differently.''

Others across town agree.

``Our church has become more concerned with people in the community,'' says Renice Francis, wife of the Rev. Harold Francis, pastor of Elizabeth United Methodist Church. ``Now, they look for needs in the community.''

Lisa Laughlin, owner of Mom's Place restaurant, sees a downside to the Lynch legacy.

``Two brand-new food-service places opened,'' she says, blaming last year's ``bombardment'' of hungry journalists. ``Now we have six, and now it's like dead around here. Nothing's happening. We don't even have a stoplight. There aren't enough people in Elizabeth to support six food-service establishments.''

A few locals have noticed a few outward benefits, too.

``People have begun to be concerned about the places they live,'' Renice Francis says, referring to residents who painted their homes or neatly trimmed their hedges prior to last summer's televised exposure. ``There's more of a pride here now. It started with all the national exposure, but it has stayed with them.''

Palestine resident Clifford Reynolds says the area has access to cable television now because of Lynch.

``They started at her house and went over Courtney Ridge 26 miles to hook it up, probably at Mineral Wells,'' he says. ``We never had it before. ... Now that they got her on, they let everybody close to the line get on.''Harold Francis says, ``People got a new focus, a new understanding, of who and what West Virginians are. We're not all barefoot and pregnant; we have some intelligence.

``I think the international media was surprised with the reception they received. Some expressed an interest in returning.''

Slow return to normal

For Lynch, now 20, of Palestine, life is slowly returning to normal - or as close as it ever will.

Lynch was discharged last year from the Army for medical reasons, and her authorized biography was released on Veterans Day. She still undergoes two hours of therapy five days a week at Mineral Wells, W.Va., although friends say the wheelchair is used only for travel now and that around home, she's down to one crutch.

``She has made remarkable improvements,'' Hennen says. ``She gets out and about now. She's a 20-year-old girl, doing stuff that 20-year-olds do - hanging out with friends, talking on the phone, watching TV.''

Lynch and her family declined through a family spokesman to grant interviews to The Herald-Dispatch for this story, but friends defend the family's stance.

``They just want life to return to normal,'' Hennen says. ``I know it's the one-year anniversary, and I know that the media want to make a big deal out of it. But it was a very terrible, upsetting time and if I were the Lynches, I would not want to remain in the past but go forward to the future.''

Just like before her stint in the military, Lynch is sometimes seen shopping at Wal-Mart in Parkersburg and getting her hair and nails done in Elizabeth. She attended the Wirt County Fair at Camp Barbe last summer - shortly after her very public July 22 homecoming from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington - and she will open this year's fair, which begins Aug. 11.

``She's upbeat, positive,'' says Lynch's cousin, Pam Nicolais. ``The child amazes me. She's never hateful, or tired, or fussing. I've never heard that little girl complain one time - and I've been up there a bunch.''

Lynch still wants to teach kindergarten someday, and she still talks of marriage to Ruben Contreras, whom she met in the Army - but that has been delayed because of her therapy and schedule of personal appearances. A couple of weeks ago, she spoke to journalism students at West Virginia University, and last month she christened Carnival Cruise Line's new ship Carnival Miracle before she and her family enjoyed the vessel's maiden cruise to the Bahamas.

And she drops in Mom's Place in Elizabeth from time to time.

``Still today, everybody wants her autograph,'' says Laughlin. ``They'll get napkins and ask her to sign them. She doesn't mind a bit. She's very down-to-earth when she's in here.''

But, Laughlin adds, she would like to see Lynch assume a more visible role in the community.

``I'd like to see her go to the schools, tell her story and encourage the students to serve in the military,'' she says.

Nicolais, who spent a lot of time answering the family's telephone after Lynch was rescued, doesn't think Wirt County will ever be the same.

She points out the many well-wishers who called from all over the world, and the new friendships that resulted.

Candlelight vigil

People who remember Lynch's rescue will gather at the Wirt County Courthouse in Elizabeth for a Remembrance Candlelight Vigil on Thursday.

The event takes place on the same night that the community gathered last year to pray for Lynch's release.

``We believe God heard and answered our prayers for Jessica, and we want to continue to pray for soldiers who are fighting in Iraq and losing their lives and for families and what they are going through,'' Hennen says as she shows a reporter a newspaper article about Army Pfc. Ernie Sutphin, Parkersburg's first Iraq war casualty. ``Every day, somebody's losing somebody.''

Will Lynch be there?

``I don't know,'' Hennen says. ``We will let the family know.''