The route leading to this longtime campsite amid the pines on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho includes several miles of gravel road swooping through hilly farm country. Green with crops, it looks nothing like Iraq, but still gave Jessica Lynch a moment of flashback. “It was the dust,” Lynch says.
A car ahead of the one bearing Lynch to Talmaks Camp on Monday morning kicked up a cloud of dust that carried her back to March of 2003, when she was a 19-year-old supply clerk and private first-class in the U.S. Army driving a truck in the enormous military convoy racing across the desert to Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces. “All you were seeing was dust and sand and you had to follow the person in front of you by their taillights,” Lynch recalls. “We were exhausted and tired and hungry… ”
It was her experiences as a woman in combat in Iraq—she was taken prisoner by Iraqi troops after a vicious firefight—and her unlikely friendship with a young Hopi woman, Lori Piestewa, that prompted the Talmaks board of directors to seek out Lynch as a speaker at the annual camp, sponsored by the six Nez Perce Presbyterian churches on the reservation. Every Fourth of July the camp has a ceremony and a speaker to reflect on freedom, liberty and the price these concepts sometimes demand from people. Lynch delivered the 114th Oration at this ceremony that began in 1897. Slender, and with a sweep of blonde hair, the 28-year-old Lynch reflected on war and sacrifice for an audience that included a dozen Nez Perce veterans going back to World War II.
Talmaks board member JoAnn Kauffman sent an e-mailed invitation to Lynch in the spring but says she thought it was a long shot that Lynch would come speak in remote north-central Idaho on Independence Day. “As soon as I saw it was a Native American reservation, I was all for it,” Lynch says. “I just knew that my friendship with Lori … well it threw me over the top.”
Lynch and Piestewa met at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas and, on the surface, it seemed unlikely they would ever become friends. “We were very different. I was more about the lace and the ruffles and the pink … I was definitely more the girly-girl,” Lynch recalls. The slightly older Piestewa, already with two small children, had a rougher, tougher look. “She wore the baggy jeans and the tank tops. … She had a baby python. But she had a soft heart and was a loving person.”
The two became fast friends, Lynch told the 100-plus people who filled the open air chapel at Talmaks. They were both country kids from small towns that didn’t have a lot to offer in the way of a future. Lynch hails from Palestine, West Virginia; Piestewa came from Tuba City, Arizona “I come from a small town in West Virginia and I grew up on a street named Mayberry,” Lynch said to laughter. “And honest-to-God, my sheriff was named Andy! Lori poked a lot of fun at me about that.”
Each had joined a peacetime army. Then, 18 months after the attacks of 9-11, they found themselves at war in a faraway land. “I never once thought I would have to go to war, or that I would have to shoot my weapon at another human being, or that I would be a prisoner of war,” Lynch told the crowd. In the Quartermaster Corps, she said, “I ordered toilet paper.”
On March 23, 2003 the third day of the Iraq war, their unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, took a wrong road at a junction in the predawn darkness and, by daylight, found that they were rolling into the city of Nasiriyah, which was defended by an Iraqi Army regiment and fedayeen militias. In a moving speech that kept the audience on the edge of the wooden church pews, and at times moved some people to tears, Lynch described what came next. “There were 33 of us against … well, against this whole town. I saw Iraqis on rooftops, Iraqis in windows, Iraqis in ditches, Iraqis under stationary vehicles, Iraqis in moving vehicles,” she said. “The streets were filling and they were coming from everywhere,” Lynch added later. “It became … well, chaotic would be a good word.”
The American’s escape plan was simple, she said: drive like hell. By this time, Lynch was riding with Piestewa in a Humvee, and the Iraqi forces had opened up, creating a gauntlet of fire. “I remember the chaos,” Lynch said. “I remember bullets whizzing through the windows, one barely missing Lori’s face.”
Lynch’s M-16 jammed instantly and she never fired a shot. “I was trying to get my gun undone, sitting between these two guys, and your hands are shaking because you’re getting shot at. It was nerve-wracking. Lori—she was not panicked at all, which I found amazing. Because of her courage, her bravery, it didn’t faze her. She knew she had a job to do, and she did it.
“Then,” Lynch told her rapt audience in the shaded chapel amid quiet conifers, “everything went black.” The Humvee Piestewa was driving was hit in the left front wheel-well by a rocket-propelled grenade and slammed into the back of a jack-knifed semi-truck.
Lynch regained consciousness in an Iraqi hospital, in excruciating pain and unable to feel her legs. She described her injuries: “I had head lacerations. My right humerus was broken. I had several cracked ribs. My back was broken at the fourth and fifth lumbar. My left femur was broken. My left tibia was broken. And my right foot was completely crushed.”
Lynch was separated from the six other prisoners, in a room with Iraqi guards. During her several days of captivity, she said, memories of Piestewa’s bravery, and their friendship, helped her focus on survival. It was heartbreaking, she said, to learn later that Piestewa had died of her injuries from that explosion and was buried in a shallow grave outside the hospital.
After learning of Lynch’s location and the layout of the hospital from Iraqi civilians, the military launched a rescue operation on April 1. Special Forces soldiers retrieved Lynch and recovered the bodies of eight slain American’s, including Piestewa. After her rescue, the Defense Department put out a fabricated story that Lynch had fought heroically during that firefight until she ran out of ammunition. From the time she got back to the States right up until Monday morning on a peaceful ridge-top in Idaho, Lynch has confronted this lie. It dishonors the other soldiers in her unit, she says, soldiers like Lori Piestewa, who acted with courage and had their stories cut short.
This is what attracted the Nez Perce to Lynch, says Kauffman. When news accounts of the Nasiriyah battle came out, she says, “The first woman killed in Iraq, the name Piestewa … Every Native person who knows about Indian people would recognize that as a Hopi name. Oh, that was so sad.”
And for Lynch to counter the government spin machine and speak highly of Piestewa as a true hero that day is, Kauffman believes, “mind-boggling. You tell the truth and you’ve got the most powerful nation on Earth saying otherwise, that takes courage. That has created some tenderness between Indian country and Jessica Lynch. She keeps saying she’s not a hero, but she definitely is.”
As Lynch wrapped up her remarks on Monday, she told the audience not to applaud her, but to shower the applause on the veterans sitting in front of her, filling the first three rows of benches.
Lynch remains in touch with the Piestewa family, visiting for a memorial ceremony every March, and uses her fame to help build a new house for Piestewa’s parents and children, and also a veterans’ center for the reservation. “This was a very special day,” Kauffman says. “She is such a down-to-Earth, humble person. Native people all across the country were touched by her friendship with Lori Piestewa and her insistence that Lori was the real hero that day. You know, it touched the hearts of Indian people and it meant a lot that she would come and share that story with us.”
Wilfred Scott, a Nez Perce veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, had organized a blessing by traditional spiritual leaders for Lynch when she arrived on the reservation Sunday. Before a small gathering of five or six people, on an overlook high above the Clearwater River, still sluicing past at full throat thanks to this year’s wet spring, elder Horace Axtell had Lynch stand on a buffalo robe and face east as he performed the blessing and sang the warrior’s song.
“It was the day before the Fourth, and somebody across the river had fireworks. When Horace was singing the song, there were these heavy artillery sounding things — boom-boom-boom-boom-boom!” Kauffman recalls, her eyes widening at the coincidence. “Wow! Here was a woman who had been in battle. It was beautiful.”
Lynch’s blessing and her extensive tour of the area on Sunday—visiting historical sites, including the Heart of the Monster locale of the Nez Perce creation story—added to the experience as tribal members and others sought Lynch out for photos or autographs or to present her with spontaneous gifts. “It was a wonderful day,” Lynch says. “Especially the Fourth of July … what better day could we have chosen?”