The Private Jessica Lynch


    Lynch on the front porch of her home in Palestine, W.Va.

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    Jessica came home from Iraq via Germany and Walter Reed Medical Center. "It took six of us to move her from the bed to the gurney the first day," her father says. "A week later, it was five. A week after that, it was four. Then she had two crutches. Now she has one. She always did have high spirits. She could always make you laugh." Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld came to see her. "That was rewarding," Greg says. "Not every day that you meet the big boys." The President hasn't called, but Jessica would never expect him to. "He's got a job to do," her father says.

    It was at Walter Reed that the Lynches saw for themselves that Jessica is only the most famous of a new breed: the returning soldier who in other wars at other times might have never made it home, given the extent of their injuries, but have survived thanks to better armor, better technology, better battlefield medicine. "You would not believe the number of amputees at Walter Reed," Dee says. "But you would talk to them, and they're just like Jessi. They weren't whining about their problems. They were worried about their fellow soldiers, and they were grateful to be out of there and alive."

    During her 100 days there, Bragg first met with Jessica and carefully, gently began to interview her for the book, which he would complete in four months. "The first day I met her, I felt guilty," he says. "She looked awful. It was like she was translucent, like you could see right through her. She was hurting. I didn't want to ask her questions as to how she got that way." Bragg is a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist and author who resigned last May from the New York Times after criticism that he had failed to credit a free-lancer with helping report an article.

    Over time Jessica was more able to talk about what she remembered. Bragg chose not to report the story from Iraq; given his deadline, he says, there was not time. The story is told from the whole family's point of view, both what they remember and what the medical records revealed. It was the parents, he said, who felt that the details of her condition and of the sexual assault needed to be in the book, "because if we didn't put it in, the story wouldn't be compete," Bragg says. "It would be a lie."

    Lynch finally got home to West Virginia to find her valley decorated with ribbons and flags and prayers for her safety. thank you god 4 saving jessica says the spray-painted banner on the side of the converted barn at the entrance to town. The neighbors had moved, if not heaven, then a lot of earth, to get the house ready for her when she came home. They had scraped mountains of dirt off the nearest ridge to level the front yard and spread it with crunchy new gravel, widened the porches, replaced the narrow doors with double French ones, built a wheelchair ramp and accessible bedroom and bathroom, a new kitchen. There are six American flags hanging from the porch, and a white flag with two red stars that a man from the vfw dropped by, to show that the family had two children in the service. Lori's belongings are in a bedroom upstairs; she and Jessica had stored their possessions together under Lynch's name when they left Fort Bliss, and so the Army shipped it all to Palestine. There will come a day soon when Lynch will have to sort through her best friend's things.

    The house may have changed, but other things hadn't. The Lynches made sure sister Brandi got to go to her high school prom, even amid all the commotion. Brandi enlisted in the Army and was supposed to report on Aug. 19. "But Jessi said, 'Don't go,'" Dee says. "And of course Brandi's going to do what she wants." It wasn't easy explaining to her little nieces why Jessica couldn't get down and play under the table with them anymore. "We take it for granted that we can get out of bed, stroll to the kitchen, without a thought," Reed, the physical therapist, says. "Everything Jessi does is a challenge. She has to climb those mountains every day."

    Now Lynch spends at least 11.5 hours every day at Mountain River Physical Therapy because the doctors at Walter Reed told her she has a two-year window; after that, what hasn't healed probably won't. Her right hand was useless when she got to Walter Reed; she couldn't so much as brush her teeth or comb her hair. Now she has full use back. She has not recovered control over her bowels and bladder. "Certainly the longer it goes the less likely it is that you're going to recover function, but nothing is impossible," says Argyros.

    "Anatomically, the nerves are intact—there's not a spinal-cord injury that would allow us to say this is never coming back." Perhaps the foot will recover as the hand did—but that's a harder fight. She still takes half a dozen pills a day, to help her nerves mend and for pain as needed. "She's going to have a good life just the way she is, but it's not going to be easy," Reed says. "The fight's not over yet."

    As for the emotional trauma, Jessi talked with the "repatriation team" in Germany and psychologists there and at Walter Reed. She's not seeing any counselors now, Dee says, but "she knows that it's there for her if she needs it." Dee herself admits to a certain amount of hiding. Asked about her daughter's trauma, she says, "That's another one of those things I just want to shut out of my mind and not think about. And I know that sounds like a coward, but it's just a mom thing. Who do you get angry at? What's anger going to do? We just focus on her. She's alive, she's getting better."

    The whole family is working at returning to a place they can call normal: after the interviews are over and the phone quiets down, they will have a chance to write the next chapter. It is something of a relief that people are starting to take the signs and banners down; the one over the courthouse was delivered to the Lynches as a souvenir, blue with yellow ribbons, proclaiming jessi is found. praise the lord. remember our remaining troops. Greg Jr. is still on active duty, and they view his deployment as inevitable. "He'll get his part in all of this," his father says. "You don't like it, but he's got a job to do. Every day we pray that this war will be over." But that doesn't mean he thinks it was a mistake. "People always ask us if we think we went in too quick," he says. "If we hadn't gone in over there, they would have been over here next."

    As for Jessica, she still wants to travel (she wants to see Hawaii, she says, and Jamaica ...), go to college, still wants to teach, but only after she has come further in physical therapy and can hope to keep up with the kindergartners. "It's time," she says, sitting on the stationary bike, gritting her teeth. "It just ... takes ... time." She has that now, and other advantages as well. "She is a good kid, and her parents are good people," Argyros says. "If there's anybody who's going to come out of this and get back as normal as she possibly can, it's going to be Jessica."

    —With reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington

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