Published on Saturday, April 5, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada
Poverty, Military Service Seem to Go Hand-in-Hand
by Roy MacGregor
PALESTINE, W. VA. -- This spring, yellow is the color of choice in the Appalachians.
The forsythia is in full bloom in the high hills north of Charleston. There are dandelions lining the ditches and daffodils growing wild along the clear creeks that empty down into the muddy Kanawha River. In the little town of Elizabeth and the even smaller Palestine, there are yellow ribbons around every telephone pole, yellow bows on most of the trailers that speckle the rolling hills and even the odd yellow wreath on the broken-down vehicles that pass for landscaping in this desperately poor country they call hardscrabble.
There is a story here of prayers being answered -- a story they are calling The Miracle in the Hills.
But there is also the harsher story of the reality of hills -- and of sometimes not even having much of a prayer.
Most houses and trailers have some yellow, but only one house -- three kilometers up Mayberry Run Road where the pavement gives way to gravel and visiting cars had better give way to logging trucks -- is surrounded by yellow police tape.
The simple, small, tin-roofed house with the backhoe in the front yard and chickens bobbing along the side belongs to Gregory Lynch and wife, Deadra. It is a house also surrounded this past week by satellite trucks and television cameras in search of any word on America's newest hero, 19-year-old U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch.
Gregory Lynch, a 43-year-old self-employed trucker, wears a faded blue-checked shirt, jeans and work boots, and periodically walks within range of the yellow tape, limping badly on his right leg. The television reporters, hair perfect, suits pressed, hurry to see if he will say anything.
He has nothing to say this day, the story already known, the images everywhere from the front pages to the tree at the end of the lane with a poster of Jessica in full uniform, looking dainty and far less threatening than the light rain that sends the television reporters and their hair racing for the broadcast trucks.
Such signs are everywhere in Wirt County. And dozens of other signs hang from the churches and buildings of this deeply religious county: "Thank You God for Saving Jessica," "Praise the Lord for Answered Prayers."
Down at The What-Not Shop in Palestine, three older men -- one a Second World War combat veteran, one a Vietnam veteran, one a veteran who fought no war -- say they never gave up hope that the teenager would be rescued.
She had been missing in action since March 23, when her unit took a wrong turn near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah and ran into an ambush. She was dramatically rescued from a Nasiriyah hospital on Tuesday. The fate of her fellow missing soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company is still unknown.
"We knew she'd be back," says Harry Hemmick, who served in the armed forces in the 1970s. He says he's known Jessica since the day her parents brought her home.
"This is a praying community," says Ron Pettry, the Vietnam veteran, adding he's known her since she first began crawling.
"One hurts, we all hurt" says Clifford Reynolds, the Second World War veteran who admits he doesn't know Jessica, but "I know her daddy, and I knew her grand-daddy, and I even knew her great-grand-daddy."
All three have something else in common with her. They saw the military as a way out of circumstance, an opportunity not to be passed up. It is no surprise to any of them that Jessica Lynch joined up the same day as her 21-year-old brother, Greg, and no surprise that her 18-year-old sister, Brandi, has also signed up and will report for duty in August.
That's just the way it has always gone in Wirt County.
"There's no jobs around here," Pettry says. "There's no employment. Most of them go into the service because they know the government will pay well and they'll come out of it with some training."
"There has never been a lot of work here," adds Reynolds. "People who didn't leave during the Depression are still stuck in the Depression if they stayed."
There has long been a link between poverty and the U.S. military, even between poverty and heroism. The last great American war hero -- winner of the Medal of Honor in the Second World War -- was Texas's Audie Murphy, the sixth of nine children born to sharecroppers so poor the family often lived in abandoned boxcars.
Jessica Lynch is unique in that she is a teenager and a woman, and not even the military can figure out the last time an American PoW was rescued.
But she is also from a poor background, and in that she is not unique at all.
The song from the musical Hair suggested that Vietnam was "white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people," but the lyrics are not entirely accurate.
The popular myth is that blacks died in far greater proportions in Vietnam than whites, but while this was true in the early stages of the ground war, by war's end, blacks had suffered 12.5 per cent of the total deaths in Vietnam, slightly less than their proportion in the overall population.
Today, there are 1.4 million Americans in the military and the Pentagon maintains that the demographics are quite representative of the population as a whole, especially given the increasing number of Hispanics who have joined in recent years.
A strong sense remains, however, that the poor soldiers so vastly outnumber the well-off that New York Democratic Representative Charles Rangel has said: "It's just not fair that the people that we ask to fight our wars are people who join the military because of economic conditions, because they have fewer options."
Oddly enough, Jessica's sudden fame has brought some trappings of wealth -- offers of new cars, college scholarships -- but the experience has been rather overwhelming to the Lynches.
"They are exhausted," U.S. military spokesman Randy Coleman says, coming to the end of the lane to talk.
There was some hint that the family would be flown to Germany to be with Jessica as she recovers in hospital, but the complications were now more on this side of the ocean than the other: the family, for one, would need passports.
"They're nervous," Coleman says. "If they fly, they're flying for the first time."
No wonder the story of Jessica Lynch has so immediately become the stuff of legend -- soon, surely, the stuff of Hollywood.
Earlier reports this week quoted officials saying Lynch had sustained "multiple gunshot wounds" and had been stabbed as she "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers . . . firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition."
The Washington Post quoted one official saying, "She was fighting to the death" and had no intention of being taken alive.
The story, unfortunately for the movie, turns out to be untrue. Her father spoke to her by telephone from Germany, where she was airlifted for treatment on an injured spine and broken legs, and he quietly told reporters there had been no gunshot wounds or stabbing.
No matter, she was still a hero, and nothing like this had ever before happened to Wirt County.
"We weren't even on the map before this happened," Pettry says.
But they certainly are now, with badly folded road maps on the seat of every reporter's car lined up and down Mayberry Run Road.
All the interest delights Alice Coplin, who pasted Jessica Lynch's picture over the front door of her yellow-ribboned trailer, and who says this rescue was the answer to the prayers of an entire community that doesn't get much but has so much to give.
"And did you see the forsythia as you came along?" she asks.
"I don't think I've ever seen it so lovely as it is this year."
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