A brief smile from a skinny country girl on a stretcher near Naseriyah brought a rare moment of joy yesterday to a country struggling with a tough military operation.
Before the rest of the nation got the news that Army Pfc. Jessica "Jesse" Lynch had been rescued by US Special Operations forces, fire trucks honked their horns and paraded up toward her family's mountain cabin near Palestine, W.Va. There, her family and friends had been praying for nearly a week for her safe return. Yellow ribbons reminded everyone of her fate in the war.
But as car horns echoed through the West Virginia hills and Ms. Lynch's mother, Deadra, "nearly broke the door off" as she rushed into the house with the news, there was little doubt that this young woman's adventure and rescue proved one of the first bright spots in a war bogged down in heavy fighting and uncertainty. The rescue dominated the news even as American marines and other soldiers moved rapidly to within a half-hour drive of Baghdad, fighting through supposedly demoralized Republican Guard troops.
It may also have emboldened US soldiers, who saw Special Operation units back up the military credo "to leave no soldier behind." What's more, some were no doubt heartened by the fact that it was reportedly an Iraqi civilian who had guided the rescuers to the hospital. Once there, they set up a diversionary attack while others spirited Lynch away.
Her rescue clearly affected everyone from war planners in Qatar to ordinary Americans, who've been enduring mostly sobering news for the duration of the two-week-old conflict.
"This is a huge moral victory as well as a plain victory," says Adrian Klingel, a software engineer in Raleigh and a former airman with the Air Force. "The first thing I think of is that we don't leave anybody behind. Now here's a young girl who joined the Army to get out of her small town and be a teacher, and she'll have lots of stories to tell her classes in the future."
Despite several broken bones and gun-shot wounds, Lynch, who was rescued by a joint Seals and Special Ops operation, managed a faint smile for an Army cameraman - an image that, at least for a moment, seemed, to mark a distinct change in the tenor of the war.
To be sure, she's gone through an ordeal. She was officially listed as missing-in-action after her convoy from the 507th Maintenance Company apparently took a wrong turn two days into the war. Several of her fellow soldiers were then shown on Iraqi TV, as part of some of the first clues that this war was going to be full of tragedies - for both sides.
Her brother, Greg Lynch Jr., told CNN on Wednesday that their celebration was tempered by the thoughts of other POWs still captive in Iraq. But he said he hopes his sister's rescue will bring hope to other families.
The celebration in West Virginia also showed the commitment many blue-collar Americans maintain to a military heavy populated with members of their own socio-economic background - particularly in the war in Iraq. Lynch's parents say they'll support their daughter if she wants to continue her contract with the Army after returning stateside.
"A mother's always worried, but I'll support her," said Deadra Lynch yesterday.
When the news came, the family was "sitting on the front porch, relaxin' after dinner," according to Gregory Lynch Sr., Jesse's father. Fireworks went off through the town and Mr. Lynch promised "one heck of a shindig" once his daughter, known by her friends as a "real firecracker," returned. He noted that she likely made sure her captors "knew who they were messing with." He even attributed his daughter's strength to her upbringing as a "country girl." "To see this bit of good news for a little-bitty blue-collar American town is fantastic," says Mr. Klingel in Raleigh.