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Lynch Gets a Flag-Waving Welcome

Ex-POW comes home to rousing celebration, thanks the many who 'helped save my life.'

July 23, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

ELIZABETH, W.Va. — ELIZABETH, W. Va. -- The yellow ribbons and American flags started lining the road Tuesday back in Pee Wee, about five miles from the main parade route.

It was West Virginia's way of welcoming home Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the 20-year-old whose captivity and rescue made her the nation's first war hero in Iraq.

"It's great to be home," the frail-looking Army supply clerk said, her voice soft but sure.

Wearing her dress uniform, black beret and service medals, Lynch sat in a wheelchair in front of a huge American flag. She thanked her doctors, the Iraqi citizens and U.S. special forces who "helped save my life," and her physical therapist at Walter Reed Hospital, Sgt. Ruben Contreras, who "never let me give up."

"Our entire state has worn a yellow ribbon around our hearts," West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise said as he introduced the former POW to the media. "God is still in the business of making miracles. One of his miracles came home to the mountains today."

Thousands of people had lined the streets of Elizabeth to catch a glimpse of Lynch. "Why, they stretch from here to Palestine," the soldier's hometown, said Roger Patterson, a local firefighter. There were squeals of recognition as she rode by on the back shelf of a red Mustang convertible, waving and smiling at the crowds.

Four months later, much about Lynch's capture and rescue remains unclear.

Her 507th Maintenance Company convoy took a wrong turn and was attacked by Iraqi forces in Nasiriyah on March 23, when U.S. troops were advancing toward Baghdad. Of the 33 soldiers involved, 11 were killed, nine wounded and seven captured.

Early reports that she had fought back against her attackers proved wrong. Lynch, who has been hospitalized with broken bones and other injuries suffered when her Humvee crashed, does not remember what happened. The circumstances of her April 1 rescue were also confused by inaccurate media reports.

On Tuesday, Lynch said she was "proud to have served with the 507th. I'm happy that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive. It hurts that some of my company didn't. I miss Lori [Piestewa]. She was my best friend. She fought beside me, and it was an honor to have served with her." The 23-year-old Native American from Arizona died in the attack in Nasiriyah.

Lynch did not specifically mention the ordeal in her remarks Tuesday, but did confirm that her first words upon being captured were: "I'm an American soldier too."

Controversy aside, to the people on the streets of Elizabeth, Lynch most certainly was a soldier of valor, one whose story tugged at their hearts.

Jeff Getz drove 100 miles from Chillicothe, Ohio, so he could play the national anthem on his acoustical guitar atop a van he had parked along the parade route. He waited until after the speech-making, because "I didn't want to disturb anything."

Mike Walker, a Vietnam War veteran wearing his "original jungle uniform," came down from St. Marys, W. Va., to celebrate a fellow soldier.

"There's a dichotomy of feelings," he said. "On the one hand, I'm really happy they're getting respect. On the other hand, it makes you a little envious."

And Barbara Fritz, whose four sons served in the military, drove two hours from West Virginia's northern panhandle to be part of a patriotic moment. "I'm thankful she got out," she said. "I just had to be part of it."

When word first came that Lynch had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital by heavily armed Special Operations forces, residents recalled Tuesday, firetrucks raced through the streets of Palestine, sirens blaring. Drivers honked their horns. Family and friends descended on the Lynch home.

Palestine, a town of 200, is so small that it doesn't have a stop light. But, there is a new, green highway sign -- a gift of the capital city of Charleston -- that announces, "The Home of Jessica Lynch, ex-P.O.W."

Lynch returned Tuesday to a far different home than she left when she joined the Army to get an education and become a kindergarten teacher.

Renovations include three new bedrooms and a handicap-accessible bathroom provided by contributions so far exceeding $50,000. Lynch, who is able to walk with the aid of a walker, has a long rehabilitation ahead. On Mayberry Run Road on Tuesday morning, the family home sported a metal yellow ribbon and a sign that read, "Jessi's Home Project, Authorized Personnel Only."

Five miles away on the Wirt County Courthouse steps in Elizabeth, Alice Click -- a middle school secretary in Point Pleasant who took the day off to welcome Lynch home -- pondered the meaning of war and celebrity, of heroes and history.

Her conclusion: "Jessica Lynch is going to be the happy ending for the war we never wanted but thought was necessary."

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