Jessica Lynch
Leave no comrades behind

Official army photo
23rd March, 2003. It was the fourth day of war, as troops of the United States and Great Britain poured into Iraq to free the land of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year old Army supply clerk from Palestine, West Virginia, was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company. She disappeared that day in southern Iraq near the city of Nasiriyah, when her convoy was ambushed by Iraqi forces after taking a wrong turn.

Later the U.S. army listed two soldiers as dead, five as prisoners of war, and eight, including Private Lynch, as missing in action. The five captives, although not Private Lynch, were shown on Iraqi television alongside the bloodied bodies of at least four U.S. soldiers.

Her motive joining the army

After graduating in 2001, she joined the Army to get money for college, intending to teach kindergarten when she returns home. Her father, a truck driver, said money was tight. "We might have been able to pay for college, but it would have been tough. The army offered her what she wanted." Private Lynch signed on for another four years before shipping out to the Gulf. Now this shouldn’t be a problem anymore: Several colleges offered her scholarships, and Gov. Bob Wise said the state would finance her education at a state public university of her choosing.

"Jessica knew it was going to be dangerous," said Don Nelson, a family friend. She did not want to fight, "but she always said, 'I'm ready, I'm prepared, I've been trained well'." Besides, she added, "I'm just a member of a supply crew."

The Iraqi informant

About a week later the U.S. forces got the information that an American woman was being held in a hospital in Nasiriyah. In fact it was Jessica Lynch. The informant was an Iraqi man, a 32-year-old lawyer, whose first name is Mohammed and who asked that his last name not be published. He learned English at Basra University and recounted in broken but expressive words how he helped the Americans.

Mohammed said he was visiting his wife, a hospital nurse, when he became curious about the profusion of agents guarding the emergency wing. He asked one of the doctors about the increased security. "He told me there was a woman American soldier there." Then a doctor friend showed him the room where the heavily bandaged Lynch was being held.

Peering through the room's window he got eye-witness as an Iraqi colonel slapped the wounded soldier across the face - first with his palm, then with his backhand. "One, two times - but she was very brave," Mohammed added. "There, I knew I must help her be saved. I decided I must go to tell the Americans."

For safety Mohammed told his wife to take their 6-year-old daughter to his father's house, and then set off on foot to find the allied troops he had heard were occupying the edges of Nasiriyah. He walked 10 kilometres in the desert to an U.S.-Marine checkpoint. Worried he'd be mistaken for an attacker in civilian clothes, he approached the Marines with his hands high above his head.

Mohammed's mission

He informed the officers about the woman prisoner, and they asked him to return to the hospital and gather more information. Mohammad walked through battles in the city streets for two days to visit the hospital. His main mission was to count the guards and document the hospital's layout, but each morning he also attempted to keep Lynch's spirits strong with a "Good morning" in English.

Mohammad accompanied his doctor friend into the tightly guarded room of the blond soldier. "I said 'Good morning.' She thought I was a doctor." he recalled. Then Mohammad leaned to her ear and whispered, "Don't worry." Jessica replied with a warm smile. She was covered up to her chin by a white blanket. Her head was bandaged, her right arm was in a sling over the blanket. The injuries on the right leg were in bad conditions, so the doctors discussed amputating her leg, he said. "My friend and I decided we would stop it." Creating numerous diversions, they managed to delay the surgery long enough. "She would have died if they tried it."

When reporting back to the Marines on March 30, he brought five different maps he and his wife had made. He was able to point to the exact room the captured soldier was being held in. He also handed over the security layout, reaction plan and times that shift changes occurred. He had counted 41 bad guys based at the hospital, with four guarding Lynch's room in civilian clothes but armed with Kalaschnikow AK-47 assault rifles and carrying radios. Further he determined a helicopter could land on the hospital's roof. It was just the information the Marines needed. Then the planners at headquarters went to work.

While he observed Saddam's henchmen, Mohammad said the notorious regime death squad paid his home an unexpected visit. Many of his personal belongings, including his car, were seized. "I am not worried for myself," he said. But "security in Iraq that is still loyal to Saddam will kill my wife. They will kill my child." He got his family out of Nasiriyah on Tuesday night, hours before a task force of U.S. commandos rescued Lynch in a raid. Mohammad and his family have been granted refugee status and have been taken to a secure location.

The Operation

On April 1st shortly before midnight, U.S. forces took out the lighting grid in Nasiriyah as helicopters carrying the Special Forces were on the way to the hospital. Predator drones circled overhead, sending pictures back to the Joint Operations Center. Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Marines and Air Force pilots were involved to get back Private Lynch, listed as missing for more than a week. One detachment of Marines made a diversionary attack on the headquarters of Saddam's Baath party and a bridge in another part of the city, while the main force landed at the hospital and began searching for Lynch.

On a stretcher after successful raid.
In front of the six-story hospital the special operations rescue team had a short struggle with the Iraqi guards, but inside the building there was no resistance. They fired explosive charges meant to disorient anyone inside and headed for Lynch's room. Jessica was hiding in her bed just after midnight when they found her, in a room on the first floor. A soldier called her name, and without answering she peeked out from under the sheets. "Jessica Lynch," he called, "we're United States soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home." The American approached the bed and took his helmet off. She looked up at him and replied: "I'm an American soldier, too."

The rescuers quickly evaluated her medical condition. "She seemed to be in a fair amount of pain," officials later recounted. Then she was strapped to a stretcher to be carried down a flight of steps and outside to a waiting helicopter. As they took off, she grabbed the hand of the Army doctor and pleaded: "Please don't let anybody leave me."

The Joint Operations Center followed the raid as it happened. The operation, expected to take 45 minutes, was over in 25, and as soon as Lynch was in the air the U.S. Central Command was informed: "She is safe and in our hands." Later in the daily press conference Brigadier General Vincent Brooks detailed the daring raid, saying "it was a classic joint operation by some of our nation's finest warriors who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind".

Jessica's comrades

During the raid an Iraqi doctor told the team that there were dead bodies of other U.S. soldiers nearby, and they were led to a burial site. Because they had not brought shovels, Air Force Major General Gene Renuart said, the team dug up the bodies with their hands. "They wanted to do that very rapidly, so they could race the sun and be off the site before the sun came up," he said. "It's a great testament to the will and desire of coalition forces to bring their own home."

The remains of 11 people were found, two in a morgue of the hospital and nine in graves in the grounds. Most of them were Americans who had disappeared outside Nasiriyah in the early days of the war. Eight of whom were identified as members of Lynch's unit. The ninth was a soldier from a forward support group of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. All have been transported back to the United States.

Among them was Lynch's former roommate, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, who became the first American servicewoman killed in a battle. Piestewa was a member of the Hopi Tribe, whose reservation is near the Navajo Reservation community of Tuba City, Arizona. She was a 23-year-old single mother raising a 4-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. Jessica leaves behind her best friend. "You never saw one without seeing the other," said a Sergeant who met them during the training in a military base in Texas. "They were very outgoing and happy people."

From Iraq to Germany

On the same day, April 2nd, the wounded soldier left Iraq on a stretcher. Members of the medical crew that accompanied her on the 8-hour flight from Kuwait to Germany said she appeared clear-headed, smiling and alert, but didn't discuss her plight with them. She arrived at Ramstein Air Base in the southwest of Germany late Wednesday for treatment at the Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl. It is the largest military hospital outside the United States. Prior to war, the number of beds was more than doubled to 322. All injured American soldiers from the Gulf war were brought to this place for the first medical treatment.

The 19-year-old private first class was in stable condition when she entered the intensive care unit. There she was being treated for a head wound, an injury to her spine, a fracture to her right upper arm, three fractures to her left leg, multiple fractures to her right foot. It was said, the patient has to undergo several surgeries while staying in Germany.

The hidden cause of her injuries

First a medical statement said: "After more closely examining those wounds, there is a possibility that the fractures to the upper right arm and lower left leg were caused by a low velocity, small calibre weapon". Intensive stressing treatment would have been the same no matter what the cause. Col. David Rubenstein, the commander of the hospital in Landstuhl, said no entry or exit wounds consistent with gunshot wounds had been found. The unpleasant implication was that she got the injuries not in combat.

Better times - Jessica Lynch, posing at her home in West Virginia
The mystery grew when CNN reported that Marines searching the home of a Baath party official in Nasiriyah had discovered Lynch’s dog tag. Later, there was a rumour that Jessica was hang up by Baath party members, the head downwards, and abused by blows with a stick. But the official American side never confirmed this information.

Her parents, two siblings and a cousin left their West Virginia home the following Saturday to fly to Germany for the reunion with Jessica. "She was more concerned about us, wanted to know how everybody was and what was going on," explained her mother. "She just wants to go home. I don't think the reality has hit her yet." She did not tell much about her capture. “When she’s ready to tell us, she’ll tell us,” her father said. But she did say that she survived for part of her time in the Iraqi hospital on nothing but orange juice and crackers.

Surgeries and favourite foods

"They have successfully done one surgery on her," her father added, smiling as he joked about pink casts for her broken limbs. "There will be other surgeries. It's going to take time and patience. But she's in real good spirits." Her back surgery was to correct a slipped vertebra that was putting pressure on her spinal cord. This could have been the cause why she first did not have any feeling in her feet. The following surgeries were to stabilize the leg and arm fractures. Doctors said the prognosis for Lynch's full recovery was excellent.

Although she was fed during the first days intravenously, she drew up a list of her favourite foods for the hospital: turkey, steamed carrots and applesauce. A spokeswoman for the Medical Center said a few days later: "Besides eating apple sauce, she is drinking plenty of fruit juice, but it seems the turkey and steamed carrots she craves will have to wait." Jessica spent ten days at the military hospital in Germany, was then flew back to the United States.

Rehabilitation treatment in Washington

The young soldier was brought to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. where she had a series of surgeries to repair her broken bones. They have been put back together with a delicate and extensive network of rods and pins.

Jessica Lynch talks to reporters as she returns home
"She is still struggling with pain and her recovery will be slow," said a family spokesman while she was in Walter Reed hospital. In the first time it took nearly an hour for her to move from bed to wheelchair. People who had seen her said she was psychologically traumatized, and appeared somewhat dazed, though she was much better than in the early weeks.

Jessica's parents spent most of their time with her daughter at the hospital in Washington. Meanwhile the family home in West Virginia has been renovated to make it handicap-accessible. The work has been done by relatives and other volunteers with local and national donations.

A new light on the story

Right after the spectacular rescue, Jessica Lynch became a national hero. The story was exaggerated by media reports saying she fought fiercely before being captured, firing on Iraqi forces despite sustaining multiple gunshot and stab wounds.

But far from a scene of battlefield heroism, journalists and a military investigation released in the beginning of July at the U.S. Pentagon brought light in the story, especially what has happened between the wrong turn of the convoy and the rescue of Private Lynch.

The path towards disaster

Fact is, her 507th Maintenance Company were the tail end of the 3rd Infantry Division's 8,000-vehicle convoy snaking its way from Kuwait to Baghdad. The 507th should support a Patriot antimissile battery within the division.

In the morning of 23 March the path towards disaster began when Lynch's unit containing trucks, trailers, wrecking tractors and Humvee jeeps missed a route which would by pass Nasariyah. Instead they took a road which led into the city that was still under Iraqi control.

The division column had been rerouted, away from Nasariyah, but the 507th never got word of the change. Because the company was frequently out of radio contact and 12 hours behind the main column. The delay was due to a break down of two company trailers and the unprecedented speed with which the heading parts of the division moved forward. Furthermore the members of the maintenance company had little chance to rest after a movement of nearly 70 hours. As a result the convoy of 33 soldiers in 18 vehicles were headed into enemy territory and away from the main group.

Into Nasariyah

It was about 6:30 a.m. when the maintenance company entered the town. Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints and armed men were seen who just waved at the Americans as they drove by. When the commander realised the navigational error he decided to turn back and retrace the convoy's route. Then one vehicle ran out of petrol. Pfc. Lynch at this point was riding on a 5-ton truck.

7 a.m., more Iraqis were appearing on the streets. The company commander instructed his troops to lock and load their weapons. Each soldier had 210 rounds of ammunition. The senior non-commissioned officer, Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, took the rear position in the column, while the company commander went up front. "We have to pick up speed, move faster!" Dowdy began yelling over the radio.

Under fire

Then the Iraqis, some in civilian clothing, opened the fire from both sides of the road with AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and mortar shells. At least one Iraqi T-55 tank appeared, and they positioned sandbags, debris and cars to block the convoy's path. The U.S. troops fired back. It was described as "a very harrowing, very intense" gun battle that went on for about 90 minutes.

Then to make matters worse, in the fire fight, the only 50-caliber weapon of the company malfunctioned and other weapons jammed, Jessica Lynch's gun as well. "We don't know how many rounds of ammunition she got off," the official said, "or whether she got off any shots at all." As they tried to escape some of the vehicles broke down or got stuck in the sand and the convoy was split up into smaller groups.

In Sgt. Dowdy's jeep

Lynch's truck became disabled too. She got into Dowdy's soft-top Humvee, which was driven by Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, one of her close friends. They were joined by two other soldiers whose wrecker broke down. Dowdy pulled them to safety at great risk to himself, the defence official said. They took the seats in the back on either side of Lynch, who sat atop the transmission hump in the middle.

Sgt. Dowdy sped along the road at speeds of 80 km/h, encouraging his soldiers to get into the fight, trying to get vehicles to move and getting soldiers out of one broken-down vehicle and into another. The soldiers in Dowdy's Humvee "had their weapons at the ready and their seat belts off," said the senior officer, who was also briefed on the investigation. "We assume they were firing back."

A catastrophic crash

Suddenly a U.S. tractor-trailer with a flatbed swerved around an Iraqi dump truck and jack-knifed. As Dowdy's speeding Humvee approached the overturned tractor-trailer, it was hit on the driver's side by a rocket-propelled grenade. The driver, Piestewa, lost control of the Humvee, swerved right and struck the trailer. The senior defence official described the collision as "catastrophic."

Dowdy, sitting in the passenger seat, was killed instantly. A Pentagon source said it was not clear whether the two male soldiers on either side of Lynch were killed by enemy fire or by the accident. Piestewa and Lynch were seriously injured and unconscious. Of the 33 attacked, only 16 soldiers in eight vehicles managed to get away.

In the military hospital of Nasiriyah

Just a two or three kilometre from the ambush site lies the Iraqi military hospital of Nasiriyah. It was where Private Lynch was first treated after her capture. On that morning, the hospital was a beehive, with fleeing, fighting and wounded Iraqi troops coming and going.

Jessica Lynch in a weelchair, she is pushed by her brother, Greg
Adnan Mushafafawi, a brigadier in the Iraqi army medical corps and the director of the hospital, said a policeman brought in two female U.S. soldiers about 10 a.m. "They were both unconscious," he said. They were severely wounded, exhibiting symptoms of shock and trauma. He read their dog tags: They were Jessica Lynch and Lori Ann Piestewa. He did not know what happened to them between their capture shortly after 7 a.m. and their appearance at his hospital about three hours later.

"Miss Lori," the physician said, "had bruises all over her face. She was bleeding from the eyes. It must have been a severe head wound." Private Piestewa died soon after arriving at the hospital, he said. Did either soldier display evidence she had been stabbed or shot? "No, no," he said, but later added, "Maybe Miss Lori, maybe shot."

Mushafafawi said he and his medical staff cut away Lynch's uniform. She lay on a gurney, almost naked, as Iraqi military doctors and nurses worked on her, he said. They found multiple fractures and a head injury that he described as minor. The staff sutured the wound. She was given blood and intravenous fluids, he said. Then they took X-rays, partly set her fractures and applied splints and plaster casts to them. "If we had left her without treatment, she would have died."

The military doctor said Lynch briefly regained consciousness at his hospital, but appeared disoriented. "She was very scared," he said. "We reassured her that she would be safe now." When Mushafafawi suggested to Lynch that he might attempt to better set her leg fracture, Lynch said "she didn't want us to do anything more," he recalled.

"She was here two, three hours," the doctor said, and then transferred to Nasiriyah's main civilian facility, Saddam Hussein General Hospital across town. He assumed his military hospital probably would be attacked by U.S. forces. Therefore it was his decision to transfer Lynch, and that no military or intelligence officers accompanied her. Piestewa's body also was transported to Saddam Hussein hospital.

Into the civilian hospital of Nasiriyah

When Lynch arrived in a military ambulance that afternoon, the nurses and doctors who admitted her said they were surprised to find an American woman, almost naked, her limbs in plaster casts, beneath a sheet.

The hospital was operating, but stressed to its limits. Only a dozen doctors from a staff of 60 came to work, the nursing staff was skeletal as the roads were too dangerous to travel, the electricity was sporadic, the own generators were failing, medical supplies spotty, and all the while, during Lynch's stay, the hospital was receiving more than 200 casualties a day.

Interviewed about Lynch's stay at the hospital, staff members insisted that they gave her the best care they could, and that they did not believe it was possible for Iraqi agents to have abused her while she was there. Although Iraqi military, intelligence and Baath Party officials began using the hospital for their shelter and as a base of operations, they said they saw no one mistreat Lynch. 50 to 100 Iraqi combatants were counted in or around the hospital at any one time -- though the number shrank day by day as deserters fled at night and the Americans closed in. But at least one member of Iraq's intelligence service was always posted outside her door.

Her condition

As the doctors and nurses recalled, Lynch's condition was grave as they brought her into the emergency room. In addition to her multiple fractures, her extremities were cold, her blood pressure down, her heart rate accelerated. She was unconscious and in shock.

After several days of treatment, Lynch's condition improved. She was moved from the emergency room to an empty cardiac care unit, where she had her own room, and was tended to by two female nurses.

An atmosphere of fear

Jessica was in pain, and given powerful drugs. She ate, sporadically, asking for juice and crackers. The staff said she was offered Iraqi hospital food, but refused. "She wanted to see things opened in front of her -- then she would eat," said one of her nurses.

Her mental state varied from hour to hour, according to the Iraqi nurses and doctors. "She would joke with us sometimes, and sometimes she would weep." One of the two primary care physicians told: "She didn't want strangers to care for her. One time, she asked me, 'Why are you standing in front of me? Are you going to hurt me?' I said no, we're here to help you."

"When she woke up once, she was saying she was scared and wanted someone to stay with her," the nurse told. "She said, 'I'm afraid of Saddam Hussein,' and I said, 'Shhhh. Don't say that name. You must keep quiet'." "Crying all the time," recalled a nurse who wept herself when describing how she tried to comfort Lynch by singing to her night and rubbing talc on her shoulders.

Her uncommon injuries and a memory gap

A surgeon of civilian hospital in Nasiriyah said that Lynch's wounds made him suspicious. The fractures were on both sides of her body, for example, and "if they all came from a car accident, there was no glass in her wounds, no lacerations or deep bruises." U.S. military sources believe most if not all the fractures could have been caused by extreme compression during her vehicle accident. The Iraqi surgeon said "maybe a car accident or maybe they broke her bones with rifle butts or by stomping on her legs. I don't know. They know and Jessica knows. I can only guess."

Jessica waves to well-wishers in a homecoming parade
Her family says she does not remember anything about her capture. U.S. military sources say she is unable to say much about anything that happened to her between the unit was ambushed and when she became fully conscious sometime later at the civil hospital in Nasiriyah. It is a common behaviour of patients who had traumatic experiences.

The story of the Iraq campaign

In the hours after the ambush, the National Security Agency, reviewing intercepted Iraqi communications from either hand-held radios or cellular phones, heard references to "an American female soldier with blond hair who was very brave and fought against them." An intelligence source cited reports from Iraqis at the scene, saying she had fired all her ammunition.

Over the next hours and days, commanders at Central Command, which was running the war from Doha, Qatar, and CIA officers with them at headquarters were bombarded with military and agency reports about the ambush. The Iraqi reports included information about a female soldier. One said she died in battle. Some said she was wounded by shrapnel. Some said she had been shot in the arm and leg, and stabbed.

These reports decorated with an Arabic myth were the sources of battlefield heroism and created the story of the war. But this was only the beginning, it should be exceeded by Lynch's night time rescue from her hospital bed. For the U.S. military and the American public however, the spectacular rescue came as a joyous moment in one of the darkest hours of the war, when U.S. troops looked like they were going to be bogged down on their way to Baghdad.

Then this story "took on a life of its own," said one colonel who mentioned the barrage of media queries afterwards. "Reporters seem to be reporting on each other's information. The rescue turned into a Hollywood concept."


On Tuesday, July 22, after almost four months of painful recuperation Jessica Lynch returned to West Virginia and is being welcomed back by thousands of cheering residents. "It's great to be home. I would like to say thank you to everyone who hoped and prayed for my safe return," the blonde soldier said in the town park of Elizabeth.

Homecoming parade: Jessica and her brother, Greg, in a red convertible Ford Mustang.
Wearing a black beret and a crisply pressed green uniform, she thanked all those who had helped during her ordeal: her family, the community, the governor, her rescuers and Iraqi citizens who "helped saved my life." Jessica spoke from a wheelchair because she still does not have enough feeling in her feet to stand on her own and can walk only with the aid of a walker.

Her uniform was decorated with the ribbons of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal she received at a Walter Reed Army Medical Center ceremony a day before. The Bronze Star is given for meritorious combat service and a Purple Heart is most often awarded to those wounded in combat. "I'm proud to be a soldier in the Army," said the 20-year-old woman, sitting in front of a large American flag. "I'm proud to have served with the 507th. I'm happy that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive. And it hurts that some of my company didn't."

Jessica Lynch arrived midafternoon in Elizabeth, West Virginia, from Walter Reed hospital in Washington by Black Hawk helicopter - the kind used in her rescue. After her brief statement in Elizabeth, the pale young woman waved to well-wishers as she beside her brother, Spc. Greg Lynch Jr., rode in a red convertible Ford Mustang for a trip by military motorcade to Palestine, her small hometown of about 300 residents some eight kilometres away. Town workers had hung hundreds of yellow bows along the route before and thousands of cheering people lined the streets waving flags and holding signs that read, "Welcome home Jessica !"