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Lynch, Jessica

Jessica Lynch

Born 1983

Palestine, West Virginia

U.S. Army soldier who was taken prisoner and later rescued during the 2003 Iraq War

"For twenty years, no one knew my name. Now they want my autograph. But I'm not a hero."

Jessica Lynch in I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.

Private First Class Jessica Lynch is one of the most famous U.S. soldiers to fight in the 2003 Iraq War. On March 23, Lynch's army unit was ambushed in the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq by resistance fighters. Badly injured in the fighting, Lynch was captured and taken to an Iraqi hospital. Nine days later, she was rescued in dramatic fashion by U.S. Special Forces commandos. She was widely hailed as a hero, although she later insisted that she was only a "survivor."

Small-town girl joins the army

Born in 1983 in the small town of Palestine, West Virginia, Jessica Lynch was the second of three children born to Gregory Lynch, a truck driver, and his wife Deadra. She enjoyed a sheltered, rural upbringing that included riding horses and playing softball. Unlike children who grow up in the city, Lynch was in high school before she ever set foot in a shopping mall. Lynch's friendly personality won her the title of "Miss Congeniality" in a beauty pageant at a local fair. Upon graduating from Wirt County High School in 2001, she planned to eventually become a kindergarten teacher.

The summer after graduation, a U.S. Army recruiter came to her home. The recruiter convinced both Jessica and her older brother, Greg Jr., to enlist in the military. Lynch viewed military service as a way to earn money for college and travel around the world. After completing basic training, she was stationed at several different military bases in the United States, Mexico, and Germany. She received a promotion to Private First Class and signed up for four more years in the service shortly before the 2003 Iraq War began.

Participates in Operation Iraqi Freedom

The Iraq War grew out of long-standing disagreements between the United States and the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq. In 1990 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (see entry) had invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. Hussein argued that Iraq had a historical claim to Kuwait's territory. He also wanted to control Kuwait's oil reserves and to gain access to Kuwait's port on the Persian Gulf. This action led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which a U.S.-led military coalition made up of thirty-five countries forced the Iraqi army to withdraw from Kuwait. The United Nations agreement that ended the war required Iraq to destroy all of its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Over the next decade, however, Hussein consistently interfered with the UN weapons inspectors sent to monitor Iraq's progress. The international community tried a number of different approaches to convince Iraq to cooperate, but instead Hussein kicked the UN inspectors out of Iraq in 1998.

The terrorist attacks that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, led President George W. Bush (see entry) to adopt a more aggressive policy toward nations that he considered threats to world security, such as Iraq. He argued that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and could provide such weapons to terrorist groups. Over the next year, Bush pressured the United Nations to authorize the use of military force to disarm Iraq and remove Hussein from power. Although Bush failed to generate UN support, the United States and Great Britain launched a military invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.

In early 2003 Lynch was stationed in Kuwait as a supply clerk with the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company. Her unit consisted of mechanics, clerks, computer technicians, and other support staff. Their main job was to set up and maintain Patriot antimissile defense systems. Although Lynch and the other soldiers in her unit completed basic combat training and carried weapons, they were not equipped to fight like infantry soldiers. In fact, the maintenance company was always supposed to travel with an infantry escort to protect it. "We are supposed to enter a town after it has been secured by other combat forces," one soldier explained to ABC News. "Even when an area is completely secure, the maintenance team is still supposed to be protected. They never go anywhere alone."

Runs into an enemy ambush

When U.S. forces launched their ground invasion, thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and personnel carriers rolled across the Kuwaiti border into southern Iraq. Lynch's maintenance company was at the tail end of a six-hundred-vehicle convoy that headed north toward Nasiriyah. On March 22 the U.S. Army's Third Infantry and V Corps came under attack by Iraqi forces that were dug in to defend the city. They responded by calling in air strikes against the enemy. After capturing a critical bridge over the Euphrates River, the American forces continued rolling across the desert toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

As the convoy pushed forward, however, the Iraqi resistance grew more intense. Some of the slower-moving supply vehicles at the back of the line were left vulnerable to attack. The thirty-three soldiers in Lynch's maintenance company struggled to keep up. Their eighteen heavy trucks and other vehicles kept breaking down or becoming stuck in the sand. The water tanker that Lynch was driving broke down and had to be towed. She then rode in a crowded Humvee driven by her best friend, Private Lori Piestewa. By the early morning hours of March 23, the 507th had dropped 130 miles (209 kilometers) behind the leading edge of the U.S. invasion force.

As they neared Nasiriyah, Lynch's unit missed a turn that would have taken them around the outskirts of the city. Instead, their convoy of vehicles crossed the Euphrates River and entered the town. At this point, Nasiriyah was not yet secure. In fact, it had been the scene of fierce fighting a few hours earlier. As the 507th passed through the city for the first time, they encountered no resistance. But they soon realized that they had made a mistake and turned around to retrace their steps. It was then that they ran into a massive ambush by Iraqi Fedayeen resistance fighters.

The maintenance company took heavy fire from Iraqi fighters in pickup trucks, on rooftops, and along the sides of the road. The Iraqis used a variety of weapons, including automatic rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. "They were on both sides of the street, and we were trapped in the middle, and they were hurtin' us bad," Lynch recalled in I Am a Soldier, Too. As various vehicles took evasive action, the U.S. Army convoy got spread out and separated. The Humvee carrying Lynch was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed into a disabled American truck. Lynch suffered serious injuries in the crash, which killed several other occupants of the vehicle, including Piestewa.

Immediately following the incident, Lynch and fourteen other soldiers from her unit were listed as missing in action (MIA). As more information became available, the U.S. Army reported that eleven soldiers from the 507th had been killed and four others captured by the Iraqis. Hussein showed the other American prisoners of war (POWs) on Iraqi television, looking battered and dazed. The incident shook the confidence of the American people and raised concerns about the Bush administration's war plan. "The ambush of the 507th suddenly came to seem like a metaphor for a war that was not going quite as smoothly as planned," Todd S. Purdum wrote in A Time of Our Choosing. "While it was true that the U.S. Army and the Marines were advancing swiftly toward Baghdad, and the punishing air campaign was well underway, the unexpectedly heavy fighting in Nasiriyah showed the downside of the lighter invasion force, with its long, unsecured supply lines."

Captured and rescued

Three hours after the ambush, Lynch was finally taken to a nearby hospital. She apparently suffered further injuries at the hands of angry Iraqis following the crash, but she was unconscious for much of this time and did not remember what happened. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she was in shock from serious and rapid blood loss. She suffered from compound fractures in her right arm and left leg, a crushed right foot, a spine that was fractured in two places, and a four-inch gash on her forehead. She almost certainly would have died if not for the medical treatment she received from Iraqi doctors.

Lynch was later moved to Saddam Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah, which also served as a command center for the Fedayeen resistance fighters. The Fedayeen engaged in intense fighting with U.S. Marines during the time she was held there. In addition to treating her wounds, however, the medical staff at the hospital took steps to protect Lynch and prevent her from being moved to another location. At one point, they even loaded her in an ambulance and drove her to an American checkpoint to return her to U.S. troops. But the U.S. soldiers fired at the ambulance, forcing it to turn around.

As the days passed, U.S. Marines fighting for control of Nasiriyah heard rumors that a female American soldier was being held in the hospital. Mohammed Odeh al Rehaief, an Iraqi lawyer whose wife worked at the hospital, came forward to confirm the rumors. He later drew maps of the facility and scouted its security force in order to assist the Americans in planning a rescue. On April 1 U.S. Special Operations forces launched a dramatic mission to rescue Lynch. It was a joint operation of elite Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, marines, and air force pilots. The U.S. troops entered the hospital in full battle gear, located Lynch, and carried her out on a stretcher to a waiting helicopter. The rescue was captured on video and generated a great deal of positive media coverage. Lynch became the first American POW to be rescued since World War II (1939–45).

Lynch was transported to a U.S. Army base in Germany, where she underwent surgery and was reunited with her family. She returned to the United States a few weeks later, after U.S. troops had succeeded in capturing Baghdad and removing Hussein from power. Lynch underwent several months of physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. Upon her release in July she attended a ceremony to accept awards for her military service. She received the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Prisoner of War medals. Then Lynch finally returned home to West Virginia, where she was greeted by cheering crowds and a parade in her honor.

A hero, or merely lucky?

Lynch became a symbol of victory, courage, and hope for many Americans. Her ordeal captured the nation's attention and inspired an outpouring of gifts and financial support. For example, a company lent her family its private jet so they could travel to Germany to see her. Hundreds of people donated time and money to renovate her family's home and build a wheelchair-accessible bedroom for her. Lynch also received a number of college scholarship offers. Once she settled back in at home, she agreed to tell her story in a book and a television movie.

But some people complained that Lynch did not deserve all the attention she received. The backlash started shortly after she was rescued, when some U.S. military officials claimed that Lynch had shown great courage under fire. They said that Lynch had crawled out of her wrecked Humvee and fought fiercely to defend her fellow soldiers. The Washington Post quoted one army spokesman who said, "She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive." In reality, however, Lynch's gun jammed and she never fired a shot during the ambush. After the Humvee crash, she was too badly injured to put up any resistance. When the true story came out, some people criticized Lynch as a fraud, even though she had no part in spreading the false information.

Another controversy erupted over the Special Operations mission to rescue Lynch. U.S. military officials described it as a daring nighttime raid in which American soldiers fought their way into the hospital. In reality, however, the commandos who rescued Lynch encountered no resistance once they entered the hospital. The Iraqi doctors cooperated by leading the U.S. troops to Lynch's room. The London Times claimed that the rescue of Lynch "was not the Hollywood story told by the U.S. military, but a staged operation that terrified patients and victimized the doctors who had struggled to save her life." But U.S. military leaders stood by their characterization of the rescue mission. They noted that the commandos had to take proper precautions because all of Nasiriyah remained dangerous at that time. In addition, they pointed out that Lynch probably would have died within a few days if the mission had not succeeded.

For her part, Lynch never claimed to be a hero and expressed discomfort with all the attention she received. In late 2003 she released a book about her experiences, I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. To the surprise of some readers, she came across as a humble and modest person who made no claims of heroism. "For twenty years, no one knew my name. Now they want my autograph," she wrote. "But I'm not a hero. If it makes people feel good to say that, then I'm glad. But I'm not. I'm just a survivor." Many people praised the way Lynch described her ordeal and noted that it increased their respect for her.

Where to Learn More

Bragg, Rick. I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. New York: Knopf, 2003.

"Coalition Rescues U.S. Prisoner of War." Online NewsHour, April 2, 2003. Available online at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/jan-june03/rescue_4-2.html (accessed on March 29, 2004).

"Jessica Lynch." Biography Resource Center Online. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

Purdum, Todd S., and the staff of the New York Times. A Time of Our Choosing: America's War in Iraq. New York: Times Books, 2003.

Rosenberg, Howard L. "Bloody Sunday: The Real Story of What Happened to Jessica Lynch's Convoy." ABC News, June 17, 2003. Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/primetime/World/iraq_507convoy030617_pt1.html (accessed on March 29, 2004).

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