YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Town's Military Conflict

In a poverty-torn patch of West Virginia, joining the service is a financial remedy. Now one of its own is listed as missing in action.

March 29, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

PALESTINE, W. Va. — Jessica Lynch wanted so much to teach kindergarten in the same small-town classroom where she had learned her ABCs. She wanted to raise children of her own in the folding foothills of Appalachia, among deer, by the river.

But to stay, Jessica first had to leave.

To teach kindergarten, she first had to learn to shoot a rifle, to salute, to march, to don a gas mask in seven seconds.

She shipped out to basic training right after high school because joining the Army was the best way she knew to get ahead in life. After a few years of service, she would earn a free college education -- and she could come home a teacher.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, was ambushed in Iraq last week as she drove supplies to the front line. Along with seven others from the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Co., she is listed as missing in action.

As her family awaits news, Jessica's friends tie yellow ribbons to tree trunks and telephone poles. They cry some. They pray a good deal. But they do not question why Jessica had to join the Army.

Patriotism runs fierce here. So does pragmatism.

Even with the frightening images from Iraq invading their TV sets day and night, some parents here still say they want their children to join the service. And some children still say they want to enlist.

"There are no jobs around here," says Amanda Davis, 18, who will leave for basic training this summer -- with Jessica's younger sister, Brandi, as her "battle buddy." A yellow ribbon is pinned to Amanda's black Army T-shirt.

"The military is a good option," Amanda says.

The unemployment rate in Wirt County runs about 15%, more than double the national average. The poverty rate approaches 20%. Since the trailer factory shut down a decade ago, there has not been much local industry, other than logging and farming. The military offers 18-year-olds a salary, health insurance, regular promotions, a free education, travel, adventure.

"It seems like a good thing to go into," says Chasity Winnell, 16, who has her heart set on the Air Force.

For Amanda, hefting an M-16 in support of her country seems the surest route to her lifelong goal: a career practicing law. "I guess I did have other options. I could have tried for scholarships. I could have worked my way through college. But it seems like such a hassle," she says.

Then she adds the explanation that most everyone here gives for enlisting: "The Army offered me a real good deal."

That's why Jessica Lynch's older brother joined the Army after graduation. He is serving a six-year tour, studying aviation electronics at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. It's also why Jessica's younger sister, Brandi, enlisted even before she finished her senior year. It was Jessica's motivation too.

"She knew the money was a little tight," says her father, Gregory, who drives a tractor-trailer. "We might have been able to pay for college, but it would have been rough. The Army offered her what she wanted."

This rugged patch of West Virginia is a community of well-rooted families; four and even five generations live as neighbors in the wooded hollows, growing tobacco or raising beef cattle in patches of pasture where the trees have been cleared. That strong bond to the land, and to family, makes it difficult for many to move to a big city in search of jobs.

Yet, often those who would recoil at moving an hour away are willing to deploy halfway around the world. The military commands tremendous respect here. Service is often a proud family tradition, passed on if not father to son, then cousin to cousin, brother to sister. So the Army feels like a hometown institution. And the life of a soldier feels comfortably familiar.

"Remember, this is the Mountaineering State. We're used to hunting and fishing and spending a lot of time outdoors. Joining the Army is just about like being at home. The only difference is, you have to put on a uniform," says Jerry Patton, a spokesman for Army recruiters across the state.

Bobbi Moore, a school bus driver, is already touting the benefits of military life to her 12-year-old son. She knows she will not be able to send him to college on her $18,000-a-year salary. She doubts he'll have the grades for a scholarship. In the Army, he can learn a trade. "He can prepare for a career," she says.

Moore holds a stack of yellow fliers reminding the community of a candlelight vigil for Jessica Lynch.

"I understand the danger," she says. "My son could very well be in just what Jesse's going through."

She does not waver. She wants him to enlist.

"It will keep him out of the minimum-wage class," she says.

Struggling communities like this one often provide rich recruiting terrain for the military. Across the country, recruits for active duty and reserves come mostly "from families in the middle and lower-middle socioeconomic strata," according to a Pentagon study.

Los Angeles Times Articles