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Friday, July 18

Well wishes - and lots of mail - will greet Lynch

By The Huntington (W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Vast throngs of people are expected to line the down-home streets of Elizabeth and Palestine, W.Va., Tuesday to welcome Pfc. Jessica Lynch home, but some of the residents have tackled large numbers for four months now - specifically, the mountains of mail addressed to Lynch.

An entire cell in the old Wirt County Jail - now a courthouse annex and office building - was piled to the ceiling this week with gifts for her. The Wirt County Sheriff's Department has checked them to make sure nothing dangerous was inside, and five huge boxes outside the cell hold even more parcels that also have been scanned for derogatory messages and catalogued so acknowledgements can be sent.

"She has no idea what she has here,'' says Wirt County Assessor Debbie Hennen. "If I said this is all yours, what would you do?''

Hennen says she will be relieved when the long acknowledgement process is finally finished.

"Little old ladies are starting to write a second time and ask, 'Did you receive my package?' '' she said. "We've got to get all these cards out.''

Hennen says even the mail addressed to Lynch at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is forwarded to Palestine for handling by volunteers helping the Lynch family.

"There has been every bit of 10,000 pieces of mail,'' she says.

She says Lynch gets mostly angels - crocheted, on paper, on pins - and there's a lot of patriotism, too.

"These World War I and II vets that send her their medals,'' she says. "It just makes you cry.''

The first week after Lynch was rescued, Hennen says Lynch's cousin Pam Nicolais would slice open the letters, give the money to Terry Edwards, another cousin, for safekeeping, write the amount on the envelope and pass it to Hennen. Then she would log the amount and the return address on a piece of paper.

"That was fine when we were getting 200 letters a day,'' she says. "But when we started getting a thousand, everyone was opening them.''

Berylann Lewis, Palestine's postmaster, says Lynch received more than a thousand letters a day for about three weeks after her rescue - swelling daily letter volume from 7 feet to 11 feet.

"That all went through here,'' she says of an office that serves fewer than 500 customers. "Sometimes the rural carrier came in early and helped me sort it.''

For awhile, volunteers picked up the mail daily.

"She still gets letters and packages every day, which is really nice,'' Lewis says.

And she's certain that volume is about to pick up again.

"Once she's home, people will feel they have more of an outlet to her,'' she says.

Hennen - who agrees that Lynch's mail is sure to soar again with her homecoming - wants to transfer the operation to a larger storage building.

"We might need to put somebody in jail,'' she laughs.