and David Crary ~ TheAssociatedPress
PALESTINE, W.Va. -- It's not hard to spot strangers in this bend-of-the-road town, nestled in a hollow surrounded by mountains. They're the ones who stop to photograph the sign that reads "HOME OF JESSICA LYNCH, EX-P.O.W."
Some are journalists. Others are admirers looking to pay respects.
Almost all of them drive up a narrow, gravel-patched road to gaze at the Lynch family home -- which, not so long ago, was literally off the beaten track.
Now Palestine has become the backdrop for a quintessential American phenomenon -- the making of a national hero. Even if details of Lynch's saga remain murky, even if other soldiers in Iraq paid a higher price for their service, the media and the public have embraced the wispy Army supply clerk above all others in uniform.
"We've had book writers, songwriters, you name it. And all of them want the same thing: They all want to be the first to talk to Jessi," said Emzy Ashby, whose What Not Shop, the only store in town, contains just about everything, new and used, including a kitchen sink.
Lynch, recovering from broken bones and fractures in a Washington hospital, has not spoken a public word since commandos rescued her in Iraq on April 1. Yet she has become a symbol of American pride, a bigger media star than any other U.S. soldier who served in the war.
Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company convoy was ambushed March 23 near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah; she was badly injured and taken by her captors to a local hospital. Nine soldiers from the convoy were killed; five others were captured and held apart from Lynch for three weeks before their release.
At one stage, Lynch -- only 19 when captured -- was depicted in a front-page story in The Washington Post as a fearless combatant who, though shot and stabbed, killed several of the ambushers and was ready to die rather than surrender.
That particular version is now discredited, by the Post and the military, and almost every aspect of the capture and rescue is tinged by some degree of uncertainty. She has told doctors she recalls nothing about the ambush, and many questions linger: How were her wounds inflicted? Did she try to fire her rifle? Was she mistreated by her captors? Did the U.S. military depict her rescue, immortalized in a grainy videotape, as more dangerous and dramatic than it really was?
Ongoing interview requests
Yet the American media -- which eagerly made her a celebrity -- are in no rush to demythologize Lynch, as evidenced by ongoing high-powered efforts of TV networks to entice her into exclusive interviews.
"The story of a caught-on-tape rescue of a young woman in danger -- this one is so tempting," said Jeff Greenfield, a senior analyst with CNN. "People don't want to be told, 'It isn't quite what you thought it was.' The story as it was told was so powerful."
Lynch's rescue occurred at a point in the war when the U.S. drive toward Baghdad seemed to be bogging down. Military officials at Central Command headquarters were elated to have a good-news story, and showed reporters video of the nighttime commando raid.
"No matter what war you're dealing with, you've got to create a hero, or the war is useless," said Allan Wolper, who writes about journalism ethics for Editor & Publisher.
Lynch was ideal for the purpose, said Wolper, a professor at Rutgers University's Newark, N.J., campus. "The fact of what she looks like, she becomes the face of America ... that looks like Doris Day. You have to have a face that makes the war worthwhile."
Lynch became a magazine cover girl; some radio stations, in her honor, played a patriotic song called "She's a Hero." She has been offered university scholarships, a trip to Hawaii, new cars, money. So many gifts -- an encased flag and hand-knitted afghan among them -- have arrived in Palestine that townsfolk have taken to storing them in one of two cells at the county jail until she returns home.
Lynch has received a flood of offers that would magnify her fame -- CBS News, for example, coupled its request for an interview with mention of possible book and TV deals. MTV has proposed flying in rap and R&B stars for a concert in her hometown -- never mind that Lynch, her neighbors say, is more of a country music fan.
Why all the attention?
Even in Palestine, some quietly wonder why Lynch, as much as they like her, is getting so much more attention than the other POWs.
"What about that black girl from Texas? Why haven't we heard more about her?" asked Ron Pettry, a 61-year-old Vietnam vet, referring to Shoshana Johnson, another ex-POW who was recently honored by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., helped arrange the visit by Johnson to Capitol Hill, motivated partly by what she felt was an imbalanced media obsession with Lynch at the expense of 507th Maintenance soldiers like Johnson and Lori Piestewa, an American Indian who is the only U.S. female service member to die in the war so far.
"Here's Shoshana, part of that same maintenance group, shot in both of her ankles, yet she was able to endure," Watson said in a telephone interview. "But we're not hearing about her. They made a hero out of Jessica Lynch and an also-ran out of Shoshana Johnson."
A spokeswoman for Johnson, Elsie Morgan, said Watson's views did not necessarily reflect those of the soldier, who could not be reached for comment.
Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said it is hard to judge whether Lynch's celebrity has been fueled by her gender, race and appearance.
"You can never underestimate how prejudice can enter into things," Jones said. "But most of it had to do with being a very dramatic story, and she being an appealing figure. That can apply to someone black, white, gay, straight, male or female."
Members of Lynch's immediate family have declined to comment on the disputed media and military accounts.
"We don't care if she went down in blazing glory," said Pam Nicolais, Jessica's third cousin. "We just want her to be OK. We just want her to come home."
Many in Wirt County -- population 6,000 -- already are feeling protective and hope her privacy will be respected.
"When she comes home, and the media gets their first picture of her, and sees that she's hurt and sees that she's in pain and sees that she needs (to be) left alone, I'm assuming they will," said Debbie Hennen, a family friend who has overseen several fund-raisers for the Lynches.
The military, meanwhile, defends its handling of the Lynch story. "We were downplaying it," Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters. "We weren't hyping it."
Another Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Gary Keck, said the saga took on a life of its own.
"We thought, 'This story will tell itself,' and we were surprised at some of the ways it went," Keck said. "Even when we tried to correct the record, the response was, 'We don't want to hear the truth."'
Michael Getler, who as ombudsman for The Washington Post has faulted his own paper's early coverage of Lynch, said the Pentagon had not been overtly misleading, but perhaps could have been more active in correcting distortions.
Getler said the Post's April 3 story, quoting intelligence sources as saying Lynch had been shot and stabbed while killing some of her assailants, should have been written more cautiously. On Tuesday, the Post ran a lengthy article stating that Lynch had not been shot or stabbed, was hurt when her Humvee collided with an Army truck during the ambush, and had trouble firing her rifle because it jammed.
"Somebody got this wrong, and nobody acted very quickly to try to probe it," Getler said.
However, as some journalists now ponder whether the coverage went astray, Getler stressed that Lynch herself deserves only admiration.
"This had nothing to do with Jessica Lynch -- it has everything to do with journalism," he said. "She's gone through a terrible ordeal."
People in Palestine agree. "I wouldn't deny her anything good she gets," said Clifford Reynolds, a retired auctioneer and farmer.
Still, all the attention may be daunting for a young woman who, according to her grandmother, does not want to be singled out from her Army peers.
"She doesn't want to be seen that way. She wants to be just Jessi," says Wyomena Lynch, who lives in a trailer across the road from the house where Jessica lived until she enlisted. "But she is our hero."