A hardscrabble town takes in the truths of war

Palestine, West Virginia's own liberation army marvels at a POW rescue.

Ron Pettry came to Palestine, W. Va., after his service in Vietnam, and slowly sank into its unhurried pace, as car parts and other junk piled up around his unpainted barn.

One of dozens of veterans in this hard-scrabble town of 500, Mr. Pettry found, amid river oaks and grassy peaks, solace from the horrors of war - even as, each summer, he watched young people walk up the road and into the service of the US military. A tiny blond softball player named Jessie Lynch was one of them.

But while memories of Vietnam make his face crinkle in pain, the "Saving of Private Lynch," as some are calling Pfc. Jessica Lynch's dramatic rescue from an Iraqi hospital, sent a bolt of belief into his chest. As fire trucks honked their way past his house on their way to the Lynches' to celebrate last week, Mr. Pettry told himself: "God is in control."

Indeed, faith is as rich as the soil in this town that sends at least 10 percent of its youth into the armed services each year. In fact, all the recruits from Ms. Lynch's graduating class are now in Iraq. While few outside Palestine knew of Ms. Lynch before her rescue - she hadn't been shown on TV - people here prayed fervently, in classrooms and in churches sheeted with plastic siding. "People here know what 'MIA' usually means," says one farmer.

Still, as TV crews from as far away as Argentina melt away from this hilly nook, the news of Lynch's rescue has, if only for a moment, hardened the locals to her career choice. Her path, it's now clear, is not all about getting out of town, getting trained, and getting money for college. For Lynch, it was also about defending herself tooth and nail - only to be captured and held for 10 days in Nasiriyah. The pent-up emotion was clear on Gregory Lynch Sr.'s face, as he found out from a reporter that eight in his daughter's unit had been killed in the ambush.

"The fact is, the Army is the only way out for a lot of kids here," says Steve Lockhart, a local glassblower. "Sure, they're willing to fight - but that may not be foremost in their minds."

Lynch's face is on every bank and church window, and roadsides salute her return. "God is still in the miracle business," says one. "Thank God for Jessie," says another.

Her status as MIA, and then her rescue as a POW, has changed the mood of this narrow valley. At the high school, the principal asked an assembly of students to stand if they had relatives in the service, and nearly all rose. It's a stark contrast to the nation overall: Only about 2 in 10 Americans have friends in the military.

Still, the area's isolation, poverty, and settler mentality have given it a stern edge: A farmer in rubber boots on a palomino horse may not wave back to a stranger; dour, thick-armed mechanics lean into their friends' trucks after work.

It's an atmosphere where commutes happen on dirt bikes, and fatigues are interchangable with the town's chief fashion: hooded hunting jackets. The deer are so plentiful they seem to roll out of the hills at dusk, looking for valley forage.

The Lynches have had their share of hard times, as their friend Debbie Rubel says. Gregory Lynch Sr. was laid off from his trucking job. And Jessica's mom, Deadra, was let go from her factory job. But at least they had their small white cabin and a community that rarely abandons one of its own, Ms. Rubel says. (The family has put off discussing a reported $5 million book deal for Lynch's story.)

But behind the homespun humility - the fact the Lynches had never flown before visiting Jessica in a German hospital, for example, or the fact that they ordered pizza for all the news crews camped on their front lawn - Lynch's ordeal was a tough truth. And it shook not only the Lynches, but the future soldiers of Palestine.

For Branndon Underwood, a high school junior who has a date with a recruiter this week, the image of their own missing soldier smiling weakly up from an Army stretcher made him think more deeply about his choice. "You expect people to die in war, but it's different when something like this happens to someone you know," he says. "It brings it all home."

And the celebration, vets here say, is sure to be followed by a long recovery for Private Lynch. Even a tough "country girl," as her father called her, will have to endure harrowing memories.

"She may recover well from her wounds, but there are other scars that'll take longer to heal," says Mr. Pettry. "And when one of us hurts, we all hurt."

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