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Lynch's fame may be unmatched by previous war heroes

Sunday, April 13, 2003
http://www.post-gazette.com

By Milan Simonich and Cindi Lash
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch went from obscurity to fame in one heart-stopping week.

Now, at 19, she appears headed for life as an American icon, regardless of whether she likes it.


Because of the whirlwind in which she was captured, wounded and rescued, her rise to fame is unprecedented in military history, said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate.

"Nothing is comparable to it," said Kerrey, who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. "I went through nothing as life-changing as Jessica is going to go through. Listen to me, I'm calling her by her first name, like I know her. That's an example of how famous she's become.

"She's already better known than the speaker of the House and any Democratic presidential candidate."

Perhaps the military case closest to Lynch's was the American flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Five Marines and one Navy man lifted the flag in a show of triumph Feb. 23, 1945. An Associated Press photographer captured the moment, which remains the best-known image of World War II.

One of the flag-raisers was Marine platoon Sgt. Mike Strank of Franklin, Cambria County. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, he was known by few people outside the Johnstown area until the photograph.

Strank was killed by friendly fire six days after the picture was taken. Because of the publicity the photo generated, reporters flooded his hometown to write the story of a hero's life and death.

"Everyone who was on Iwo Jima was a hero. The people who raised the flag were no more the heroes than anyone else, but theirs is the memory that lives on," said Christopher Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review.

World War II was rich with brave men, Hanson said, but to many, the single name that stands out is Audie Murphy, who parlayed his battlefield glory into a career as an actor.

Murphy's legacy demonstrates that, even in the most celebrated cases before Lynch's, military heroes were usually months or years in the making. Many of the most courageous servicemen, such as Mitchell Paige, often had no chance to catch their breath, much less bask in public attention.

Paige grew up poor in Charleroi and West Mifflin before joining the Marine Corps at 18. Six years later, he was a platoon sergeant in one of the more lopsided battles of World War II.

On Oct. 26, 1942, he and 32 of his men faced about 1,000 advancing Japanese soldiers intent on capturing Henderson Field, an air base in the Solomon Islands. The fighting left every Marine except Paige dead or badly wounded. Paige, bounding from machine gun to machine gun, held off the Japanese until U.S. reinforcements arrived.

Awarded the Medal of Honor, he placed it in a cigar box, shipped it home to his parents and went back to war for two more years.

Now 85 and living in La Quinta, Calif., he is in demand for appearances and speeches almost every day. His feat remains one of the most remarkable in military history, but he never became a household name, even after Hasbro modeled a GI Joe action figure after him.

Today, with instantaneous television coverage of war, crime and disaster, heroes and victims rise to public prominence in a heartbeat.

Jessica McClure snagged her place in the world's memory as "Baby Jessica," the 18-month-old daughter of teenage parents who, in October 1987, fell and became trapped in an abandoned well in Midland, Texas. For the next 58 hours, the world watched while rescue workers drilled and chipped through solid rock to save the crying toddler.

Jessica's rescue spawned gifts and money from all over the country. She has a trust fund that, in various reports, is estimated to be worth nearly $1 million.

Her ordeal also brought a flurry of media attention and a television movie. Since then, interest in her life continued as anniversaries of her accident rolled around or other events in the news, such as the rescue of the Quecreek miners last year, served as reminders. But her family, determined that she have as normal a childhood as possible, has shielded her from that attention and refused nearly all interview requests on her behalf.

"We deal with it by not dealing with it," said Susan McClure, Jessica's stepmother. "It comes up every now and then. But we're just not in the habit of taking the calls."

Lynch's story may live on as well, especially when other female soldiers are captured or killed in war.

She grew up in Palestine, W.Va., where her goal was to become a kindergarten teacher. She joined the Army to help cover the cost of college. War changed the course of her life.

In Iraq, Lynch and fellow soldiers in the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company were ambushed March 23 in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq.

At least eight of her comrades were killed. Lynch, taken prisoner, was grievously injured. The Army says she suffered two broken legs, a broken right arm, a severe back injury and two small-caliber gunshot wounds.

While she was listed as missing in action, her picture flashed across television screens the world over. This trim blond soldier from a rural state became the object of a nation's collective attention.

Then her story took a turn that, Kerrey believes, cemented her fame.

Marines rescued her from a hospital after getting a tip on her whereabouts from an Iraqi lawyer. The man said he saw Lynch's captors slap her as she lay immobilized.

After undergoing surgeries at a military hospital in Germany, she was expected to return this weekend to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Details of Lynch's capture by the Iraqis remain murky. Army sources leaked a story to The Washington Post saying she had emptied her rifle in a valiant attempt not to be taken alive.

Kerrey says the details do not matter to the public at large, mostly because of Lynch's compelling biography.

"Here's a girl from West Virginia who goes into this war, into what previously was a man's world. She's got this lovely look of vulnerability. She receives serious injuries and then she's rescued. On balance, the story makes you feel good.

"So she's become sort of every girl -- a celebrity in circles that care nothing about politics. In her case, what groups of Americans don't know about her?"

Kurt Angle, the Mt. Lebanon native who, in 1996, became the first American to win an Olympic wrestling gold medal in the 220-pound class, also believes Lynch has achieved immortality, like it or not.

Now a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment, Angle often plays the villain. But he once had a persona as wholesome as Lynch's.

He fell to his knees and wept after winning the gold medal in Atlanta, where he defeated an Iranian wrestler in the final match. It remains one of the defining moments of his life.

"So you're recognized everywhere, you're stereotyped. That's how people will remember me," he said.

Angle believes Lynch will forever be known for surviving in Iraq.

"What a role model for females she could be. She came from a small town in West Virginia, and now everyone knows her name. She should take advantage of this, not for just her own benefit but to motivate other people. If it's just money she wants, it will be a very short wave."

Angle compared Lynch to Trisha Meili, the Upper St. Clair High School graduate who became known as "The Central Park Jogger" after she was attacked and nearly killed in the New York park in 1989. Meili has written and is promoting a book about the assault and her recovery that is subtitled "A Story of Hope and Possibility."

Meili, Angle said, has chosen to use her ordeal as a means to inspire or encourage others. He believes Lynch will have the same opportunity.

Journalism professor Hanson is less certain that Lynch will endure as a heroic figure, especially as her story undergoes scrutiny.

Hanson wrote for Columbia Journalism Review about the celebrity and media hype that followed the rescue of Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady, who was shot down in Bosnia. Today, he said, the flier with a dramatic story is mostly forgotten.

"I asked my students last week who Scott O'Grady was. None of them remembered."

Hanson said the tendency to equate victimization with heroism is persistent in American culture. In Lynch's case, her vulnerability is being played up.

"We don't know anything about her, yet the media is now in the process of creating something," Hanson said.

Kerrey, whose hero's tag was dented in recent years with revelations that he led the slaughter of innocents in a Vietnamese village, said that being the focus of public attention was never easy.

His right foot was blown off in Vietnam and his hands were mangled by shrapnel. To this day, his service in war is controversial, for he was part of something that the American public did not embrace as a worthy cause.

Kerrey says Jessica Lynch's circumstance is different, but the road ahead for her will not be easy.

"To be somebody's hero is a tremendous burden," he said. "I would hope and pray that she is strong enough to remain whoever she was prior to this incident. A lot of people with a lot of money and a lot of different agendas are going to try to buy her."


Milan Simonich can be reached atmailto:msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956. Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.



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