(Managing Editor's Note: Dr. Gerald Johnson and his wife, Norma Johnson, residents of O'Brien in Suwannee County, recently visited Wirt County, West Virginia, the home of an American war hero, Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch)
ELIZABETH, W.Va. - The natural, mountainous landscape in Wirt County, West Virginia during springtime forms a beautiful, peaceful setting for an inspirational true story of faith, courage and patriotism.
It's the home county of an American war hero - a 19-year-old girl and standout athlete at her high school who joined the Army to further her education and wound up exhibiting incredible courage and the will to survive.
West Virginia's state motto is "Mountaineers are Always Free."
It's as if the saying were written just for Wirt County's own, Palestine, W. Va. native Jessica Lynch.
Amidst the push for Baghdad by Coalition troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Americans rejoiced at the news that U.S. Special Forces, led by Navy SEALS, had rescued Army Pfc. Lynch from a hospital in An-Nasiriyah, Iraq, where she had endured several days of suffering at the hands of the enemy.
When the news of Lynch's rescue reached Wirt County, indeed the entire state of West Virginia, pandemonium followed. The joy of her rescue still lingers in the area. Lynch's home county, as well as her home state, are planning large celebrations in her honor when she arrives home from her stay at a Washington. D.C. area Army Hospital, where she is recovering from her extensive injuries.
Dr. Gerald Johnson and his wife, Norma Johnson, residents of O'Brien in Suwannee County, recently visited Wirt County, W. Va. and Lynch's hometown, Palestine, W. Va. and shared their thoughts of the experience as well as those of several longtime friends and area residents with The Jasper News.
"As we went down to Palestine, West Virginia and stood in the yard of Jessica Lynch's home in Wirt County, you have a firsthand knowledge of how beautiful the area is," said Dr. Johnson, who was the Pastor of 19th Street Church of God in nearby Parkersburg, W. Va. from 1989-93. "It's beauty with simplicity of people that live close to the land. The thing that impressed me was not only the beauty of the surroundings, but also the beauty of their spirit.
"One headline of the Charleston Daily Mail was "Prayers Answered" - West Virginians are unashamed to speak of their faith, there's an openness, a transparency and an honesty there. A good example is a statement made by West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was quoted as saying 'God watched over Jessica and her family, and all West Virginians are rejoicing.'"
Dr. Johnson also said during his visit to West Virginia, the Governor of the state, Bob Wise was quoted in the Charleston Daily Mail as saying "it just shows that miracles can happen."
Norma Johnson was impressed with the faith the local community had that Lynch would be rescued.
"According to several of the people we talked to who have lived there all their lives, as soon as the call came to the parents she was definitely among the missing, immediately, within an hour's time, people began to gather with candles at the courthouse yard spontaneously, praying and singing hymns - the Lynch's also came," said Mrs. Johnson. "They were ministered to by the people and they were all very positive in agreeing that Jessica would come home. They declared that she would come home. They spent several hours there with candles in the air, praying, asking God to intervene."
According to Mrs. Johnson, several of their friends in the Wirt County area shared with her that when the news came Lynch had been rescued, "within an hour the streets were filled with fire engines, everybody blowing their horns, screaming and dancing in the streets."
"They had another celebration at the courthouse, a praise service - that she was alive," said Mrs. Johnson. "They're very grateful to God and to America for caring so much about their little country girl. It was one of the most moving and touching experiences I've ever had. The thing that has touched me more than anything about the whole story is, Jessica kept telling the captors, they'll come get me. She never lost faith that America would send someone to rescue her. That faith probably got here through this."
Several area West Virginia residents, friends of the Johnsons who attended the 19th Street Church of God in nearby Parkersburg while they ministered there, were able to share their feelings about Lynch's rescue with them, as well as several Wirt County residents.
"I rejoiced and praised God when Jessica was rescued," said area resident Judy Ball. "I was in a prayer meeting for another local soldier who was being deployed when we received a phone call. We thanked God for what had happened."
"She is a very likable young lady, we feared for her with the way prisoners are treated, but we all prayed for her," said Clarence Gant, a resident of Wirt County, Vietnam Veteran and friend of the Lynch family. "God dispatches angels to be around people like her."
"Jessica was active at the school, playing on the basketball and softball teams," said Wirt County Principal Ken Heiney. "She's a top-notch young lady. Everybody knew Jessi."
"It's uplifting, it's unreal," said Mike Shepherd Wirt County High School coach. "Prayer did it. It brought all the churches in the area together."
Lynch's remarkable rescue has attracted quite a bit of attention from the national media, who, according to the locals, have been clamoring to use the pay phone outside the Subway fast-food restaurant in nearby Elizabeth. Many parts of Wirt County are inaccessible for cell phone use.
The state of West Virginia is sponsoring a "statewide party" May 31 in Lynch's honor. According to the local residents, the media hasn't seen anything yet as far as a celebration goes - just wait until Lynch returns home.
"After we all arrive home, we're all planning on one heck of a shindig," Greg Lynch, Jessica's father told the Parkersburg News. "We love her and the little brat's caused a big stir in this county."