Holding out for a hero

The dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital was, it turns out, a little too good to be true. But while the US media hastily rewrites history, Andrew Buncombe finds a West Virginian community reluctant to let go of 'their' heroine
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The Independent US

In a deeply wooded valley in West Virginia, on a bright June morning warm enough to leave a thick lick of sweat on his brow, Greg Lynch was busy preparing his house for the daughter who might never have come home. Most of the work to complete the extension, to ready the house for the homecoming of a young woman in a wheelchair, had been done. There was just some more panelling to go at the back and the sides of the house, he explained, and then he and his friends were going to start laying the timber boards for the outside deck.

"We've had more than 1,000 people involved," he said, his voice swelling a little with pride as he stood in the sunshine. "They're all just volunteers. They have all come here on their own time. They have all pulled together."

His daughter, Jessica, the young woman for whom the house in the tiny Appalachian village of Palestine is being prepared, is not coming home just yet. She is still undergoing intensive physical therapy for multiple fractures and compression to her spine and, until the end of the summer at least, it is likely that the 20-year-old will remain where she has been for the last 10 weeks: in a private room at the end of a corridor on an upper floor of the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington. A military police officer stands guard outside her door. He is there on her behalf.

Jessica has been in the army's medical centre since 12 April, having been recovered from a filthy and only partially functioning hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in a dramatic night-time operation carried out by US forces. She had lain in the city's Saddam Hospital for at least eight days after her unit, the 507th Maintenance Corps, was ambushed by Iraqi fighters and militia. When the Delta Force troops landed in Blackhawk helicopters and stormed into the hospital at around 1am on 1 April, one of them reportedly said to her: "Jessica Lynch, we're United States soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home." Lynch, still weak from her injuries, replied: "I'm an American soldier, too."

It was too good an opportunity for the Pentagon to miss. At a time when the US-led assault upon Iraq was considered, at least in its presentation, to be have developed something of a wobble, the rescue of the young, pretty, all-American woman was the perfect feel-good story. Eleven of Lynch's colleagues had been killed or fatally wounded in the ambush; five others were taken captive (and later released), but the young soldier from West Virginia was coming home, as the grainy, green-tinted video footage of the rescue, shot by a military cameraman using a night-sight, revealed.

At the regional headquarters of the US Central Command in Doha, Qatar, there was feverish excitement. Reporters were roused from their beds by Pentagon staff. There was a terrific, morale-boosting tale to tell the world. "Some brave souls put their lives on the line to make this happen," declared the CentCom spokesman, General Vincent Brooks. "Loyal to a creed that they will never leave a fallen comrade."

Further credit for the rescue of Lynch - said by the Pentagon to have received stab and bullet wounds, and to have beentaken captive only after using up all her ammunition to shoot and kill the Iraqi ambushers - was given to an Iraqi lawyer, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief. According to the Pentagon, Al-Rehaief risked his life to inform the Americans that Lynch was being held. He was quickly granted asylum to the US and a $500,000 (£300,000) book deal. His contribution to the drama surrounding Lynch - Rescue in Nasiriyah - is due to be published in the autumn.

The story that was seized on around the world - turning Lynch into a household name overnight throughout the US and splashing her face across newspapers and television screens - seemed too good to be true. And so it was. Though the Pentagon has more or less stood by its story, initial reports of the rescue have had to be rewritten after some media organisations questioned the veracity of the Defense Department's account. The Washington Post, for instance, last week published an extensive account of Lynch's story, correcting many of its own earlier versions.

Lynch, it transpires, was not shot or stabbed by the Iraqis: she suffered multiple fractures after the Humvee vehicle she was travelling in crashed into a jack-knifed truck. Nor did she kill a number of Iraqis as they came towards her, "fighting to the death", as one official said at the time. Rather, it seems her M-16 semi-automatic jammed. Nor was the Special Forces rescue quite as dramatic as it had been made out to be: there were no Iraqi forces at the hospital and the soldiers met no resistance when they stormed in. The doctors were actually rather pleased to see them.

None of this has mattered a jot to the mainstream US media beast that is battling to tell the story of the perfect American heroine. If anything, the growing controversy about Lynch has made her even more of an item, even more of a "must-get". "The story of a caught-on-tape rescue of a young woman in danger, this one is so tempting," said Jeff Greenfield, an 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."

Last week it was revealed that the CBS network has been so desperate to obtain an exclusive interview with Lynch that it has offered her numerous enticements linked to other parts of its parent company, including a book deal, a movie contract, an opportunity to co-host an hour-long MTV video show and a concert in her home town featuring either Ja Rule or Ashanti. "We've been taking [the requests for interviews] to her and her parents to allow them to think what they want to do," said Beverly Chidel, a spokeswoman for Walter Reed medical centre.

The contrast between the state-of-the-art medical centre and the Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah could not be more pronounced. I visited the latter on the morning of 3 April, two days after Lynch was whisked to safety and a day after US Marines declared that they had secured the still-lawless city. Only two hours earlier, armed looters had shot their way into the hospital, stealing drugs and equipment and terrifying patients. The dedicated staff were struggling to deal with scores and maybe hundreds of people injured in the city fighting and by the US air strikes. Since the war had started they had had to work without electricity or running water.

Two urbane and charming Iraqi doctors, Ahmed Jassim and Sabbah Hassad, paused to take The Independent on a tour of the wards, leading the way through stinking corridors whose floors were awash with water and grime, the plastic cover sheets of the beds filthy with dried blood. It was all one could do not to vomit, the smell was so vile. The wards were full of people miserable with shattered limbs, punctured by shrapnel wounds, treated with only the most basic of dressings. Some of those injured were unlikely to survive, the doctors admitted out of earshot of the patients.

To the two young medics, trying to cope with the horrors of a war with little security and very limited equipment, the details of Lynch's rescue were less of an issue than the need to restore some semblance of normality to the hospital. They pointed out the doors that had been kicked in by the US soldiers when keys could not be immediately found, and were angry at reports that Lynch had not been well-treated.

"We put her in a private room in the cardiology ward - it is the cleanest room," said one of them as he opened the door to the small but tidy room in which Lynch had been treated, bottles of pills that she had been given still standing on one of the tables. "We gave her the only bed in the hospital for preventing bedsores." He paused and then added: "We feel sorry that she suffered in our country. [We have] very poor facilities. We do what we can."

In retrospect it would, of course, have been wiser to linger in the hospital and gather as much information as possible about the young American patient who had spent a week there. As it transpired - having checked my notebook from the time of the visit - I left with little more than a few hurriedly scratched lines about Lynch and the details of her rescue. Certainly there is not enough to prove or disprove the Pentagon's claims.

But while it is right that the story of Lynch's rescue and the way it was ruthlessly spun by the Pentagon is investigated, the people of Palestine, the small, blink-and-you'll-miss-it village where she grew up, could not care less. Nor, it seems, do they care about the controversy surrounding CBS's offer of a movie contract. "Look. They're going to make a movie, they're going to write a book - she might as well benefit from it," concluded one local in the village post office last week.

Such a reaction is not surprising. Palestine sits in the centre of Wirt County, a pocket of wooded Appalachia hills and valleys where unemployment stands at 15 per cent and where a fifth of families live below the national poverty level. Going into the armed forces - either for a long-term career or else to get a scholarship for college - is a well-trodden route for many of the area's young people, presented with few decent job options nearby. Lynch's brother and sister, Gregory Jr and Brandi, have both also embarked on careers with the army.

Some voices have criticised the way in which a local girl has been turned into a celebrity, but these appear to be in a minority. "There are people who think too much attention was focused on her - but I think a lot of that was jealousy," said Clifford Reynolds, 77, a family friend of the Lynches who was working in the town's only shop, a bric-a-brac store called The What Not Shop. "Tears came to my eyes when I heard [she had been captured]," he said.

During the days when Lynch was a POW, the church-going people of Palestine said that they turned to prayer and to each other, visiting the Lynch family to offer what support they could, pressing their ears to the radio for any news about their neighbour. All along the sharply curving roads of the little village, yellow ribbons were tied to trees. "I went up [to the Lynch's home] when she was missing," said Ed Toman, the county's schools superintendent, who used to teach Lynch when she was a pupil at neighbouring Elizabeth High School. "What do you say? Just that we are here for you."

When news of Lynch's rescue broke there was uproar in Palestine. The local fire brigade roared through the streets, racing up to the Lynch family home on Mayberry Run Road, sounding their sirens in celebration. "There were tears in my eyes again," smiled Mr Reynolds. "But these were of a different kind."

While Lynch has slowly recuperated in hospital, a whirlwind of controversy and dispute raging around her, the people of Palestine have done what they can to make her homecoming easier. There has been an effort to raise funds to extend and prepare the family home for her return - homespun ideas such as charity bring-and-buy dinners, or producing $5 (£3) T-shirts for visitors. Both Palestine and Elizabeth, meanwhile, have put up green-and-white road signs welcoming motorists to the "home town of Jessica Lynch - ex-POW".

It has been an episode her father could not have imagined. Along with Lynch's mother, Deadra, he has spent most of the last 10 weeks by his daughter's bedside in Washington, doing his best to help her recovery. He says his life has been turned upside down. He seemed to be a warm, genuine man, ill at ease with the frenzy that has been going on all around him.

"She's good - she's coming on," he said of his daughter. He did not know what she wanted for the future. The media deals she had been offered were not something they were thinking about. "She's not sure [about the future] yet. Get her home, get her back here," he added. "She has got her whole life ahead of her. That is all we are thinking about at the moment."