In Lynch's town, remodelings and transformations

Year after leaving the little cabin with the sagging roof, Pfc. Jessica Lynch limped home Tuesday to a new life - and a new house. As the soldier returned to the now-famous front lawn where her father, Gregory Lynch Sr., brushed away tears after her dramatic rescue, the ramshackle porch was gone. In its place stood what seemed a tiny castle, its roof line the only trace of a mountain-cabin core.

The renovation was the effort of local residents, a spontaneous version of "Trading Spaces" in which volunteers wielded chop saws and pinch bars to turn a sagging home into something even Private Lynch might not recognize.

In the process, the project helped lift a town - as Lynch helped lift a nation after the dubious early days of war.

Palestine was, of course, transformed by the Lynch saga and the swarm of stories that followed. From the moment the first details of her rescue from an Iraqi hospital leaked out - with hyperbole, some now say - the tiny mountain hamlet that shaped her became a symbol of tenacity and resilience. As reporters rushed in, locals reveled in Lynch's new celebrity, but cringed, also, in the klieg lights of sudden fame.

Tuesday, as Lynch returned, that ambivalence lingered. With hundreds of reporters thronging the town, there were grumbles and glares - but also yards decked out with flags and yellow ribbons, roads freshly paved, and crisp new uniforms for the local band.

A quieter transformation

Around the Lynches' home itself, the change has been both louder and more subtle, with the rustle of measuring tape, the clang of construction, and a quiet, steady cooperation. As cameras rolled all through April, spinning out the saga of "America's Hero," people here say they simply did what they always do when someone's in trouble: They walked over to help. And stayed.

But as the project wore on - morphing from a handicap-accessible bathroom to a whole-house renovation - it became the site of that other transformation, not just of a home and a legend, but of the people who swung hammers and heaved beams.

"For us, it was really a ritual of healing, an opportunity to do something for everybody," says Lew Peck, a stern-faced deputy sheriff who served as foreman of Jessi's Home Project. "We didn't just do it for Jessi, we did it for all our boys and girls over there."

Peck, a native of the no-stop-light county of Wirt, found it one of the biggest challenges he's ever faced. That's not to say he lacked carpentry experience - but most of it, he admits, amounted to Honey-Do tasks at home. His biggest project to date was heading a renovation of the county jail.

This time his boss, County Sheriff Andy Cheuvront, gave him two months off to work on the house. "I think Lew's a better man for it," Mr. Cheuvront says with a grin.

While most renovations are imbued with the tension that remodeling seems to thrive on, here, workers say, there was little dissent. Over two months, $50,000 of supplies, and countless hours of contractors' donated time, the days ran together as dozens of men and women pounded and painted in unison.

"There were no egos on that job site," says county employee Diane Ludwig.

And no cellphones to call for another two-by-four: Palestine's terrain doesn't cater to GPS signals. In this county with the state's lowest employment rate, money doesn't count as much as character, says Peck. Many of the self-appointed carpenters were themselves veterans, and Wirt County boasts dozens of local high school graduates among the troops who are still stationed in Iraq.

An evolving tale

As the Lynches stayed by Jessica's side, first in Germany and then at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the house nearly doubled in size, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an entire new story. Peeled siding and brown trim gave way to bright white walls. A flag pole - the black POW flag flying - went up in the yard.

Some may see it as a twist on "Monster House," a strange vestige of a culture in which bigger is better and makeovers reign.

But the call for bare knuckles and broad shoulders - and the bruised thumbs that followed - became, too, a parable for the evolving tale of rescue.

Over the years, the Lynches' 1890s cabin on Mayberry Run Road had quietly sagged toward the earth, part of the hardscrabble country décor of small homes and trailers set amid chicken coops and horse fences.

This renovation, like most, was more than carpenters had bargained for: The wiring was ancient, the roof pitched at odd angles, the foundation dipped. The workers couldn't punch out a wall without messing with the roof. They couldn't mess with the roof without shoring up the foundation. And so on.

"We started one thing and 20 other things came up," says Peck. "We sat down and realized what we had to do and what we didn't want to do. Then we emptied our bottles of water and got to work."

Whispers of worry and doubt

Meanwhile, Lynch's story morphed from heroics to havoc to a haunting example of how a nation in crisis will seize on threads of inspiration with an alacrity that sometimes clouds the truth.

And while some grew suspicious of Lynch's amnesia, the rescue's timing, and her apparent orders for silence, Jessi's Home Project became a form of therapy for the carpenters, who found in the saga of rescue, renovation, and long, sweaty days a transcendence of their own.

"Our family is blessed to have been born in Wirt County," Brandi Lynch, Jessica's sister, told local reporters recently.

Still, the moment every "Trading Spaces" fan lives for was a tense one. When Greg Lynch finally showed up this summer, his face betrayed no emotion. Peck wondered if they'd done too much, gone over the edge to rise above the family's ordeal, gone too far in celebrating their "American hero" - and healing their pain over war's rising toll.

"In the end, I was wondering whether we should all just get out of there," says Peck.

So as Lynch's homecoming date drew near, the choice of details - new carpets, new ceilings, new tile - passed to Jessica's father, who spent the last two weeks of construction at home. And after Tuesday's brief press conference, the culmination of a spring's anticipation and delay, the plan was to finally leave Jessi and her family to their own devices - now with square footage to spare.

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