Since we have short memories, let us return to 2003, a time when pundits wondered how many American troops might die in the Iraq War before the public rose up in protest. No one imagined that nearly 4,500 Americans would die in the course of the war, or that it would last so long.
One of the early casualties was Pfc. Lori Piestawa.
An hour before the ambush, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa knew something was wrong. It was just before dawn, only three days into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and her unit’s slow-moving convoy was approaching a bridge over the Euphrates River. That’s when Piestewa saw it: the heavily fortified town of Nasiriyah, rising out of the sands like a mirage. She stared in disbelief through the dusty windshield of the Humvee she was driving. A city? Shouldn’t they be in the desert?
At the far end of the bridge, Piestewa spotted an Iraqi military checkpoint. She braced for the worst. But as the column lumbered by, the Iraqi soldiers inside waved, beckoning the Americans deeper into the city.
Piestewa turned to her best friend, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was riding in back of the Humvee. They were both thinking the same thing: We’re not supposed to be here.
It was a small error, but a fatal one. The 507th Army Maintenance Company – a support unit of clerks, repairmen and cooks – had taken a wrong turn in the desert, stumbling into Nasiriyah by mistake. Without warning, the company suddenly found itself surrounded, an easy target for Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen paramilitary forces armed with AK-47s, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The ensuing attack proved to be the Army’s bloodiest day of the ground war – and the first hint of the deadly quagmire that Iraq would soon become. Eleven American soldiers were killed and nine were wounded when the 507th came under what the military later described as a “torrent of fire” in Nasiriyah.
The attack made Jessica Lynch famous. U.S. Special Forces later plucked her from an Iraqi hospital and rushed her to safety, and the media seized on the daring rescue to create a tale of American heroism and valor. But the real story of what happened in Nasiriyah that day – and the clear warning it offered of things to come – involves a different soldier, one who gave her life to protect her friends. Lori Piestewa, born and raised a Hopi on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, became the first American woman to die in the war, and the first Native American woman ever to die in combat on foreign soil. Only twenty-three years old, Piestewa saw herself as a Hopi warrior, part of a centuries-old tradition developed by a people who once resisted an invasion and occupation by the U.S. military – much as the Iraqis are today. She went to war, but she believed above all in peace, in doing no harm to others. “I’m not trying to be a hero,” she told a friend just before the invasion. “I just want to get through this crap and go home.”
After a dramatic rescue, Pvt. Jessica Lynch returned home to a media blitz. She was pressured to be the public face of the American soldier going down with guns blazing. Jessica Lynch turned down a chance to be a war celebrity, because she was accountable to her fellow soldiers, and to the truth. She served the American people with her integrity, as much as she did while in uniform.
Lynch was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2003. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, and the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of her heroic resistance.
“It meant a lot, really, it did, especially to come out for the Tillman family,” Lynch told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. “They really need answers. And, you know, they have tons and tons of questions that are just unanswered. And they need that.”
At the hearing, the chairman of the House panel, Henry Waxman, accused the government of inventing “sensational details and stories” about Tillman’s death and Lynch rescue. After she arrived home, Lynch set the record straight in a book called “I Am a Soldier, Too.”
“At first I didn’t even realize … the stories that were being told,” she said. “It was quite a while afterwards, and then I found out. It was a little disappointing. And I knew that I had to get the truth out there because, one, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself … knowing that these stories were portraying me to do something that I didn’t.”
Although Lynch was injured severely, she didn’t suffer any gunshot wounds. Still, recovery is a long process and she said the healing is slow.
Lynch, whose brother also serves in the Army, isn’t sure why the stories were made up because her capture occurred so early in the war. But she was the first POW rescue since World War II, which was big news. She wants America to understand that the real heroes were those who died in the fight and those who risked everything to save her.
“Definitely my friend Laurie, for trying to get us to safety,” Lynch said. “But, you know, she was killed in combat so — but the ones who came in and rescued me, the ones who were in my unit fighting to death, you know, those are my real heroes.”
Pat Tillman was a pro football player who gave up his career to serve in Iraq. He was killed by ‘friendly fire’ in the confusion of war. The truth about his death was only disclosed because his bereaved family would not give up.
Pat Tillman’s younger brother, Richard, lashed back at politicians who said his dead brother was with God. Pat Tillman wasn’t religious, and piety did not console the family.
A tribute to Lori Piestawa is here. She leaves a son and a daughter.
The war continues in Afghanistan. It is being fought by ordinary men and women, our volunteer army. The people of Afghanistan have no choice to opt out as the war is on their own soil. There are heroes, there are survivors, there are cowards and liars in the fog of war.
Unquestionably, we are asking great sacrifice of some Americans while the rest of us can forget altogether, except on days such as Memorial Day. If we are to support our troops we must recognize our service men and women and their families by supporting them in peace, even if that debt takes a generation to pay. When the war is over, we must not fail to include our veterans in the opportunity they so justly earned.