Even before her rescue in Iraq, former POW Jessica Lynch was a hero to many of her friends in Palestine, West Virginia.
The petite 19-year-old softball player and former Miss Congeniality grew up in the rural town of 935, harboring dreams of teaching kindergarten, but her ambitions unexpectedly took her way beyond the confines of Palestine and into the hearts and minds of everyone who witnessed her improbable nighttime rescue three weeks ago.
Lynch joined the Army to earn money for college, a decision that shocked her three best girlfriends. Pal Miriah Duckworth could hardly believe that the little girl who used to scream at the top of her lungs every day when her mother dropped her off for kindergarten had joined up during such a tumultuous time. "I was like, 'You did what? You enlisted in the Army? What the heck are you thinking?' " Miriah said. "I couldn't believe [it]. She's so tiny."
Even when she got her orders to ship out to Kuwait in advance of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Lynch (just "Jessi" to her friends) wasn't afraid. Just before leaving Ft. Bliss, Texas, Lynch told a reporter, "I love my job. I love being here and I like my unit." It wasn't long before Lynch was in the thick of the action, as her support company, the 507th, pushed into Iraq the day the war started.
Lynch's friends knew not to worry too much about Lynch's unit, which was falling in behind the frontline troops to resupply them — until they heard about the ambush of an Army supply convoy that had taken a wrong turn near Nasiriyah. Word quickly spread across the county about the nine missing soldiers.
"I knew something was wrong by my mom's tone of voice on the phone," Duckworth said. "I immediately burst into tears. I never dreamed it was Jessi. ... It was the worst week of my life. You don't eat. You don't want to talk to anybody. You just feel depressed and worried." For Lynch's friend Jennifer Baileys, not knowing Jessica's fate hurt the most.
The situation wasn't helped when Iraqi TV aired pictures of soldiers reportedly killed in the ambush. Lynch's friends refused to give up on her, though. "When they first said that she was [missing in action], I thought, 'Jessi's little enough, she can hide,' " Baileys said.
"I never thought that she was dead, ever," her friend Nikki White said.
Overnight, yellow ribbons, flags and other signs of support sprang up all over Wirt County, where friends and neighbors gathered in churches and homes to pray for Lynch's safe return. Town residents purchased so much yellow ribbon that anyone wanting more had to drive to Ohio to buy it.
Like the rest of the world, Lynch's friends watched her saga unfold on live TV, but for them, the unprecedented press access proved to be too much.
"I didn't need to see the blood coming out of the side of [her maintenance truck]," Baileys said. Nine days passed with no word on Lynch's whereabouts. The silence was broken on April 1 when media outlets reported on a daring raid in Iraq — videotaped by a Marine — that resulted in the rescue of a badly injured Lynch.
A team of Navy Seals, Marine commandos, Air Force pilots and Army Rangers worked with U.S. Special Forces in the raid, the first to free an American POW from behind enemy lines in half a century. Lynch had suffered a head wound and fractures to her right arm, both legs, right foot and ankle, and had a spinal injury. The soldiers also uncovered the bodies of her eight comrades taken in the ambush.
Baileys had the TV on when news of the rescue broke. "I ran downstairs real fast and I sat down with my dad, and he's like, 'It's gonna be Jessi,' " Baileys said. "As soon as I actually got a phone call and someone told me, 'They found Jessi!' I was jumping up and down."
Baileys sprinted over to Duckworth's house and the friends celebrated together as Lynch's normally quiet family house on Mayberry Run Road overflowed with friends, family and well-wishers. The uneasy silence in town was broken with the jubilant wailing of fire and police sirens. "Everybody was honking the horns. It was like a madhouse, a big old circus. It was the best," Duckworth said.
"Every single person who signed on that dotted line to give their life for us is a hero," said Baileys. "Jessi is definitely a hero."
Lynch returned to U.S. soil on April 12 and is recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., just a few hours away from her hometown. NBC has announced plans to air a movie about Lynch's ordeal by year's end, with or without her family's blessing.
Gil Kaufman, with additional reporting by SuChin PakSuChin Pak
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