In W.Va., family cheers rescue

POW's home community celebrates her safe return

War In Iraq

April 02, 2003|By Marego Athans and Johnathon Briggs | Marego Athans and Johnathon Briggs,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The fate of Gregory and Deadra Lynch's daughter, Jessica, looked grim after her supply convoy was ambushed near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq and the military declared her missing.

She was not one of the five prisoners of war paraded on Iraqi television March 23, nor did she seem to be one of the four bodies in what appeared to be American uniforms sprawled in a morgue with bullet wounds in their heads.

Her family back home in Palestine, W.Va., feared the worst ("You blank that out," her father said), but hoped for the best.

And last night the family's fondest wish came true: Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, was rescued.

"This is the most joyous occasion. She's coming home!" shrieked her cousin, Pam Nicolais.

In the nearby county seat, Elizabeth, where the courthouse and other buildings are festooned with yellow ribbons, fire trucks blared their sirens and drivers honked their horns in celebration of the news.

"It's like a big parade. It's unbelievable," said Rodney Watson, one of Lynch's high school softball coaches. "God has answered our prayers in a major way."

The Lynch family got the word about 7 p.m. that Jessica was safe and convalescing in an American military hospital.

That was about an hour before Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks stood at a podium at Central Command headquarters in Qatar and read a terse statement:

"Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq. The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area. More details will be released as soon as possible."

CNN reported that Marines had staged an armed assault on Nasiriyah as a diversionary tactic while special forces were carrying out her rescue from the Saddam hospital.

A member of the rescue team recorded the rescue on videotape, which might be shown today, an unidentified official told The New York Times.

The newspaper reported the attack had been planned for several days after U.S. intelligence learned where Lynch was behind held. It was kept secret from all but a few top Central Command officers and the special forces unit that conducted the rescue, the Times reported.

Lynch had to be carefully removed because she was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds incurred during the ambush, according to the network.

Within minutes of Brooks' announcement, the Lynch clan - 100 people strong - began gathering in elated astonishment at the family's white-and-red, gingerbread-style farmhouse with the wraparound porch.

"Everybody here is celebrating," said Nicolais. Even better, the family later received a call directly from Lynch.

Watson heard of Lynch's rescue last night during a deacons meeting at Elizabeth Baptist Church. One of the church deacons, Dean Thorn, came through the door with a big smile on his face and shouted, "Jessi's been found!" Thorn had found out moments earlier from her brother, Greg Lynch Jr.

"Everybody started hugging and crying and giving praise to God," Watson said. "It's a miracle."

"God watched over Jessica and her family," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat, through a spokesman in Washington. "All of West Virginia is rejoicing. This is an amazing tribute to the skill and courage of our military."

Her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, was ambushed near Nasiriyah, a strategic city on the Euphrates River, after making a wrong turn during early fighting in the invasion of Iraq.

The death and capture of rear-echelon personnel quickly became the subject of debate amid charges that combat troops had rushed to Baghdad without assuring that their 250-mile supply line was safe.

The attack also demonstrated the willingness of the Iraqis to use irregular forces employing guerrilla tactics.

In the agonizing period prior to her rescue, when there was no word about their daughter, the Lynch family refused to despair.

"You've got to have will," her father, a truck driver, said. "You can't look at it like she's dead. We blank that out. We've got to keep hope up for her. If we lay down, we betray her."

Barely a year out of high school, Lynch, like many young people in the beautiful but poverty-scarred hollows of West Virginia, had enlisted in the military as a way to escape.

Jobs were scarce - the unemployment rate is 15 percent in surrounding Wirt County - and the Army recruiter who showed up on her doorstep spoke beguilingly of travel in foreign countries and the chance for a college education at military expense.

Lynch flourished in the military, where she was a supply clerk. The experience was so positive that she recently re-enlisted for four years.

She excitedly wrote a former schoolteacher that she had been to places "half of Wirt County will never see" - Mexico, Germany and Kuwait.

Not long after she wrote that letter, her company moved into Iraq, a place she will certainly be glad to depart.

Her brother, Greg Jr., 21, enlisted at the same time she did, but was still stateside when she disappeared.

Like his father, he believed fervently that his sister would return home alive. Though she was just 5-feet-4 and 105 pounds, she was known for her spunk and self-reliance.

"Her training and emotional strength and determination will get her through," Greg Lynch Jr. said last week. "She's got the background to keep her head on straight and do what she needs to to survive."

Her father agreed: "If someone told her you can't do this, she'd show 'em that she could."

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