Injuries, rescue don't define her
It has been seven years since Army Rangers swept in and carried former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch, then an Army private, out of an Iraqi hospital where she had been held captive for nine days.
Yet that ordeal, which thrust her into a worldwide spotlight due to early -- and erroneous -- government depictions of her as a Rambo-like fighter and the televised rescue raid that followed, still haunts the now-27-year-old West Virginia native.
"I have nightmares on a regular basis," Ms. Lynch said during a recent telephone interview, her quiet, girlish voice sometimes disappearing behind a request for attention from her 3-year-old daughter, Dakota Ann.
"I dream of people chasing me through the woods and trying to kill me."
The lingering effects of the physical injuries she suffered in the early days of the Iraq war are also everyday reminders of the day in April 2003 when her convoy was attacked after making a wrong turn in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
Her best friend, Lori Ann Piestewa, and 10 other soldiers died in the attack. Ms. Lynch, who suffered multiple injuries, and five others were captured.
Ms. Lynch now lives in Elizabeth, W.Va., about 16 miles from Parkersburg, and is planning her wedding.
A former Army supply clerk, Ms. Lynch became internationally known after her capture and rescue -- and after military officials, in widely circulated reports early in the war, initially described her as a female Rambo who fought back fiercely after the ambush. Ms. Lynch has maintained she never fired her weapon and was knocked unconscious during the attack.
According to her 2003 biography, Ms. Lynch cannot remember what happened to her until she woke up hours later in an Iraqi military hospital. She suffered spinal fractures and other broken bones and was sexually assaulted after the attack, according to medical records cited in her book; Iraqi doctors have disputed the sexual assault allegations.
Today, in addition to her ongoing nightmares, she remains in pain from the physical injuries she suffered in the attack -- a crushed right foot, metal rods in her right humerus, left femur and left tibia, a metal cage supporting her spine, and nerve damage that has affected her bladder and bowel. She uses a brace on her foot and continues to undergo physical therapy, but she said those things do not define her life today.
"I don't mentally let it get to me," Ms. Lynch said. "It's just something I live with everyday. More than anything, I consider myself blessed because of my baby and the fact I made it out alive."
Ms. Lynch realizes she will probably never escape the notoriety she received because of the later-debunked reports about her capture and the raid in which she became the first U.S. POW to be rescued since World War II.
She said she's surprised people know who she is after so much time.
In addition to being a mother, she is attending classes in elementary education at West Virginia University. She also speaks to groups -- some as large as 50,000 people -- across the country several times a month.
Elementary students she's spoken to have read about her in class.
"The first time I realized that, I thought, 'My goodness. I'm in the history books.' "
Some people still want to believe in what she calls the "fabrication" that she engaged in Rambo-style heroics, she said. Rather than focusing on her past, she said, the message she tries to convey to her audiences is one of hope: Persevere. You have the power to overcome. It is within you.
Ms. Lynch also has become a strong advocate for Fisher House, which provides free housing for families whose loved ones are being treated in nearby VA hospitals.
The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System earlier this year announced plans to break ground this summer for a $5 million Fisher House within walking distance of its Oakland facilities. It will be the state's first Fisher House.
There are 43 Fisher Houses located on 18 military installations and 13 VA Medical Centers in 13 states, as well as in Washington, D.C., and Landstuhl, Germany. Ms. Lynch's family stayed in the Landstuhl Fisher House during her long recovery in Germany.
She will speak next Sunday at North Allegheny Senior High School during a fundraiser for the Pittsburgh facility. The event, which is free, starts at 2 p.m.
Franklin Park historian Debby Rabold, whose husband was a Fisher House liaison for the VA before he retired three years ago, said she organized the event to coincide with Armed Forces Day, which is May 15. Ms. Lynch said she's making the trek from her home to Pittsburgh because she believes in Fisher House's mission.
"The Fisher House was our savior," she said.
People who come to hear her speak shouldn't expect to see a hero, Ms. Lynch said.
"It's hard for me because I don't think of myself like that," she said. "I want to help people, and maybe if people think, 'Look what happened to her and she can do this and this and this,' then maybe they'll say, 'I can do this and this and this.' "
A limited number of tickets are available for the Armed Forces Salute. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call 412-364-4115, ext. 309.
First Published May 9, 2010 12:00 am