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Wednesday, April 2

Rescued soldier's hometown celebrates

By Rebeccah Cantley-Falk | Huntington Herald-Dispatch

PALESTINE, W.Va. - A rural West Virginia town that more than a week ago was veiled in sorrow was in a celebratory mood Wednesday with the news that Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who had been listed as missing in action since March 23, had been rescued in Iraq.

Lynch's parents, siblings, cousins, friends and an entire community expressed thankfulness to God and the military for finding Lynch alive Tuesday.

"We've seen her on film,'' said Pam Nicolais, a cousin to Lynch's father, Gregory. "We know she's alive. We're not certain about what her injuries are, but she's alive, and she's going to get better.''

Traffic was constant on the one-lane road to the Lynch home, set between two hills at the end of a gravel driveway. Family members, exhausted but elated, shared their story with swarms of journalists as the Wirt County Sheriff's Department directed traffic.

"You can't call this a sleepy town anymore,'' Lynch's brother, Greg, said as he stood on the porch of the family home in Palestine, about an hour north of Charleston.

Greg Lynch, 21, took questions from reporters when his parents, Gregory and Deadra, retreated to the interior of their small, two-story home after Wednesday morning's news conference. Both were emotionally and physically exhausted.

Greg Lynch said his family had not talked with his sister and were not sure about the extent of her injuries. Jessica Lynch, 19, was among the soldiers of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company who were ambushed March 23 near Nasiriyah. She is a supply clerk.

Five members of the company were shown on Iraqi television, but Lynch was listed as missing in action. Her family never gave up hope she would be found alive, Nicolais said.

"I said the only thing that's going to bring Jessica home is prayer, and we started making calls immediately,'' she said.

Lynch's family received cards, e-mail and flowers from people throughout the country and from Norway, Canada and Ireland, Nicolais said.

"We just kept telling Dee (Lynch's mother), 'Hold on. She's in God's hands.'''

The residents of Palestine, nearby Elizabeth and other communities in Wirt County already are planning the party that will honor Jessica Lynch when she returns home. The celebration started Tuesday night when neighbors began calling one another and driving from home to home to hug and cry.

Rhonda Alltop, who lives in Palestine, said she joined a parade of fire trucks, tow trucks - anything with lights - that drove out to the Lynch home.

"She has been on our minds every day,'' Alltop said. "I would look at the clock and then think, 'Oh, what time is it (in Iraq)? Is it dark? Is she outside? Does she have food?'''

Employees at the Wirt County Courthouse went to the courthouse shortly before 9:30 Tuesday night. They turned on the lights, opened the doors and put speakers on the courthouse lawn to play music, said Debbie Hennen, a courthouse employee and Elizabeth resident.

"My 8-year-old was running around here last night in her pajamas and tennis shoes,'' Hennen said.

Many residents talked about Jessica Lynch as a petite girl who made up for her size with spunk. Lynch joined the military because she needed help affording college and wanted to become a teacher.

"She's bull-headed,'' Greg Lynch said of his sister, who played softball and basketball at Wirt County High School. "But really, she's a good sister. She's a good girl. She was a good student. And she's a good soldier.''

Greg Lynch is a year older than his sister, who will have her 20th birthday April 26. The siblings actually enlisted in the military on the same day. Greg Lynch is a member of the an aviation company based in Fort Bragg, N.C. The two always have been competitive, family members said.

Is Greg Lynch proud of his younger sister?

"As long as no one's looking, I'd say yeah,'' he said, laughing and looking over his shoulder.

Lynch's family members are waiting to hear when they can bring her home and help her recover.

"This is her environment,'' Nicolais said as she threw up her hands and looked at the hills. "These are her surroundings. This is Jessie's territory. This is a good place to heal.''

Elsewhere, other families of military personnel in the Persian Gulf were relieved about the news of the rescue.

"I thank the Lord that she's OK,'' said Joan Leach, whose son, Mark Leach, is in the U.S. Army Reserve's 302nd Military Police Company out of Fort Hood, Texas. "I think they did a good job about keeping it quiet when they found out where she was. It's a miracle that they got her out.''

"I'm thrilled for her and her family,'' said Sandee Franklin, whose son, Adam Franklin, is serving with the 130th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard, based in Charleston. "I can only imagine how elated they must be.

"I'm extra proud of our troops for having the courage and the bravery to go after her. My prayers are for her speedy recovery.''

Meanwhile, a Delta Air Lines spokesperson in Atlanta declined to reveal whether the company would fly the Lynch family to Germany to be reunited with their daughter.

"We routinely do goodwill gestures, but out of respect to the family I cannot confirm or deny,'' said Katie Connell.

But Delta mechanic Doug Hall, a Palestine native, said late Wednesday afternoon that the technical operations employees are going to take care of supplying "buddy pass'' tickets - an employee benefit - for Lynch's parents and siblings Greg and Brandi.

"I'm going to foot the bill for the two kids out of my own pocket,'' Hall said.

Lynch, who was being treated for undisclosed injuries, was being transferred to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southwestern Germany on Wednesday afternoon, said Heather Miller, spokeswoman for the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base.

(Bob Withers reported from Huntington, W.Va.)