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Hometown spruces up for Lynch

Former POW returns to West Virginia Tuesday

by Gavin McCormick

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ELIZABETH -- Jessica Lynch has never seen her home county quite like this: Bedecked, bow-strewn and virtually weedless.

Then again, Wirt County has never planned a celebration quite like the Tuesday homecoming of Lynch, the 20-year-old soldier from Palestine whose military imprisonment and rescue have become a symbol of the nation's war against Iraq.

With hundreds of journalists descending on this county seat of about 1,000 for Lynch's first public comments since being taken prisoner in Iraq in March, locals have been painting, pruning and preening for weeks.

"Every weed in every crack is down to dirt," said Debbie Hennen, Wirt County assessor. "We don't want people to see weeds. We want them to say, 'Gosh, that is such a friendly town. That's a place I'd like to live.'"

Many of the flags and yellow ribbons that have sprouted since Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company convoy was ambushed March 23 have been replaced, especially along the five miles from Elizabeth to Palestine that Lynch's motorcade will drive on her journey's final leg.

Lynch, who is recuperating from multiple broken bones and other injuries, will be flown to Elizabeth with family members by helicopter from Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Wayne Wright, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6608, drove to Marietta, Ohio, to buy dozens of flag poles now attached to utility poles along the motorcade route.

"We want to let her know that we care," Wright said.

On a break Sunday from retarring the parking lot of Dick's Market, a shirtless Todd Somerville, crew leader for Asphalt Maintenance Inc. in Vienna, said he had paving jobs lined up across the county over the next two days.

"Oh, yeah, lots of people want to spruce up their places for Jessi," Somerville said.

Beneath the ribbons and paint, Lynch will find life essentially unchanged in this county where everyone seems to know at least a Lynch cousin or aunt, and where folks routinely rally for neighbors in need.

Gesturing to the unusual bustle at Dick's Market, Jim Bostic of Spencer said, "All this hasn't really changed things much."

Bostic, 46, moved his Ohio steel coil packaging business to Elizabeth three years ago because he liked its people.

"This is almost like an Amish community in some ways," he said. "We're 50 years behind the times, but in a good way. I'm still an outsider, but people's loyalty to me as an employer has been unbelievable."

When a pregnant Charlene Curfman's Palestine home burned down 27 years ago, within two days neighbors in the unincorporated town of about 300 had given her and her husband everything they needed.

"It's not just one person, it's everyone," said Curfman, 53, a beauty salon owner. "People will help each other and never expect repayment."

Some locals say all the efforts to help Lynch -- including a massive fund-raising and volunteer effort to restructure her house to accommodate the wheelchair she still needs -- have united the county as never before.

"We've all shared the lows of her disappearance to the highs of her rescue," said Greg Thorn, 44, who with his brother inherited Dick's Market from their father. "I think it's made a close-knit community even more so."

Curfman said, "My only hope is that people don't think we're back-hills country bumpkins. We're good folk here."