Former POW Jessica Lynch today may still look and sound a lot like she did as a 19-year-old U.S. Army private first class, but she says the past decade has taught her a lot about pain, loss and perseverance.
“No matter how bad the pain is, smile,” she said during an interview Thursday. “Smile, and you just go on.”
Lynch became a household name in 2003 when her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, was ambushed in the city of Nasiriya during the Iraq War. Lynch was grievously injured during a 90-minute firefight, and 11 members of her company were killed. Lynch was captured and held by Iraqi soldiers at Saddam Hospital in Nasiriya. She was later rescued by U.S. special operations troops who stormed the facility.
It was the first successful rescue of an American POW since the Vietnam War and the first rescue of a female POW. The bodies of eight American soldiers also were recovered in the raid.
Now 10 years later and set to turn 30 in late April, Lynch is sharing her memories of her experiences, the time since the attack and her hopes for the future.
The attack occurred March 23, 2003, but Lynch said for her it could have happened yesterday.
“That day is still so vivid,” she said. “I think something as traumatic as that, it’s hard to forget.”
Lynch suffered devastating injuries, including fractures in her arms and legs and a broken back. At one point Iraqi doctors considered amputating her left leg.
“That was scary,” she said.
The most terrifying moment, Lynch said, came during the rescue the night of April 1, 2003. She could hear explosions and fighting, and people shouting her name.
“That was one of the scariest moments,” she said. “I could hear my name being screamed, ‘Where is Pvt. Lynch?’ I knew, good or bad, I was their target.”
Much of the rescue is a blur, she said, and it took her a while to realize who had her and that she was being taken to safety.
“I was still in that moment of shock,” she said.
There are gaps in her memories, immediately following the attack and until she woke up in the Iraqi hospital.
“I’m kind of thankful. I don’t want to know,” she said. “I mean, I want to know what happened to my friend, what killed her. Long term I hope I never regain those memories.”
Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa was among the 11 soldiers lost in the attack. Both she and Lynch were gravely wounded and taken to the Iraqi hospital. where Piestewa later died.
“She died in the bed next to mine,” Lynch said.
Lynch said she still misses her friend terribly and thinks of her often.
“I feel so guilty that I got to come home and she didn’t. I think the survivor’s guilt is going to stay with me longer than anything.”
There are other pains as well. Lynch said since her return to the states she has gone through 21 surgeries and countless hours of physical rehabilitation. There is pain and other side effects, such as weakness in her legs and arms.
But she has persevered and tried to return her life to a state of normal. Lynch graduated in December 2011 from West Virginia University at Parkersburg with a degree in elementary education. She now works as a substitute teacher in both Wirt and Wood counties and is pursuing a master’s degree in education.
Lynch, who is engaged, said much of her free time revolves around her 6-year-old daughter, Dakota.
Lynch’s rescue thrust her into an often harsh limelight. She was hailed as a hero and stories of her capture and rescue swirled through the media. Many of those stories were later proved to be exaggerated and some even false.
Lynch eventually testified before Congress after the death of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman Initial reports indicated he was killed by enemy fire, but afterward it was revealed he was killed by friendly fire. Lynch said the misinformation surrounding her capture and rescue became part of the investigation into the circumstances of Tillman’s death.
“That was difficult, sitting in front of Congress and saying, ‘You lied. You’re lying now,'” she said, “It was for the Tillmans, not for me. I got to come home and tell my story. His story needed to be told.”
Despite proof the falsehoods and exaggerations were manufactured by the government, Lynch said she continues to suffer backlash from people who believe she has tried to cash in on her fame.
“There is still a lot of criticism. People like to pick on me,” she said. “It used to bother me. It doesn’t so much anymore.”
When she does step into the public eye, it is often to bring attention to worthy causes, she said, whether it be specific charities or the needs of other soldiers.
“I do a lot with West Virginia University Children’s Hospital charity,” she said. “I do a lot of things in the community. I do a lot of things people don’t realize because I don’t do it for me. I do it to do something good.”
And while sometimes she wishes her own fame and notoriety would fade away, Lynch said if it helps keep other soldiers in the public eye, it is worth the scrutiny.
“I hope people will remember we still have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, in other parts of the world,” she said.
Lynch said all of her experiences, good and bad, have taught her to look at her life with optimism and gratitude, and she remains optimistic about the years ahead.
“I don’t know where the future will take me,” she said. “When the doors open, I’ll walk through.”