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Jessica Lynch looks back, ahead

Tom Hindman
Jessica Lynch, 29, loaned this doll, a Barbie fashioned in Army fatigues by a supporter, to the state Culture Center for an exhibit on her set to open April 1. It's been 10 years since the Wirt County native was captured in Iraq and rescued a little more than a week later.
Tom Hindman Among the items to be displayed are Lynch's camouflage Army fatigues, patches, keepsakes sent to her and metal Prisoner of War bands that soldiers wear around their wrists. Other items also will be on display along with the medals awarded to her, including the Prisoner of War Medal, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The 10 years after her terrifying capture and dramatic rescue have been bittersweet for Jessica Lynch, but she's looking ahead to the future.

It's hard, because she carries the memory of the 11 soldiers who died in the ambush or as a result of it, including her best friend, Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa, but sweet because of the memories she's created since then and the life she's carved out for herself despite it all.

Lynch, then a 19-year-old supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Co., was riding with Piestewa, 23, and others in a convoy on March 23, 2003, when they were ambushed in Nasiriyah. It was three days into the Iraq War.

The two were taken to a hospital in the Iraqi city where Piestewa later died. Lynch's dramatic rescue by Army special forces from a hospital in Nasiriyah occurred more than a week later on April 1.

The petite Lynch was in Charleston earlier this month, delivering some several personal keepsakes to the state Culture Center, where an exhibit on her is planned for next month.

Lynch traveled to Arizona last week to be with Piestewa's family. The Hopi mother of two, who was the first Native American female service member to be killed in action, had been Lynch's closest friend and roommate when they were at Fort Bliss, Texas, home base to the 507th.

A memorial service was held for Piestewa on Saturday, and tributes were also made to other Arizonians killed in the Iraq War.

"It's an emotional time, especially when - I guess that survivor's guilt kicks in," Lynch said. "I feel guilty for coming home without Lori and that's one of the hardest parts about the recovery period. Just knowing that I got to come home and live my life and have a child - and she doesn't.

"It's a happy-sad occasion," she said of the 10th anniversary. "I'm mourning the loss of my friend and at the same time celebrating that we've made it past this 10-year mark that has been crazy. . . But at the same time we still need to think about the others that were killed that day."

Some details of the ambush were bungled, with some claiming Lynch fought valiantly by firing her M-16 at Iraqis who were trying to attack their group. Some accounts had her being shot and stabbed. But she testified before Congress a decade ago that it wasn't the case.

She describes the details of what happened that day in the book "I Am a Soldier, Too" an authorized biography written by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg. But now, she says it's time to move on, and it appears she has.

 

In the history books

Lynch, 29, still lives in Wirt County, where she was raised. It's where she's raising her 6-year-old daughter, a voracious reader named Dakota.

"She's learning to read," Lynch said grinning. "She wants to read every book she can to me. I love it but she's not a baby anymore."

She achieved a longtime goal and earned a bachelors degree in education from West Virginia University at Parkersburg and spends her days substitute teaching at elementary schools in Wirt and Wood counties.

She continues to speak about her life and time in the Army at events around the country and now is working toward a master's degree in communications.

"It's exciting but draining because it's a lot of work," she said. "In the end, I'll look back and say 'OK, all those late nights studying and writing 20-page papers were definitely worth it.' "

She wanted something to fall back on in case teaching didn't work out for her, but so far, she loves her days with the children.

"I love substitute teaching," she said, beaming. "It's been fun. I love the little elementary kids.

"I wanted my master's to be in something different other than education so I had something else to fall back on."

The kids she teaches don't know her as former Prisoner of War Jessica Lynch. She's just their sometimes teacher. But middle school students learn about her in their history books, she said.

She laughed, saying it aloud again as if it were still hard to believe, "I'm in the history books."

 

Not a hero

In the 10 years since the ambush and rescue, she's mostly recovered from the physical trauma, suffering injuries to her back, arm and legs in the attack. She was greeted with fanfare and a parade upon her return to West Virginia months after her rescue.

She maintains now, as she has since her rescue, that she's not a hero, but she still receives gifts from people who feel otherwise. It's amazing to her that people still think about her and continue to show support.

"There's a lot of things that I can tell people spent a lot of time creating and working on like the blankets," she said. "I know those afghans are not created in five minutes, slapped together and put in the mail.

"They've actually spent a lot of time creating it and thinking about the patterns that go into it. I'm very honored. Especially now 10 years later that I'm still receiving things like that."

But she also still receives hate mail. She said it doesn't affect her any more - though in the beginning she took it to heart.

She speculated the hate could have stemmed from jealousy over the activities in which she was partaking.

She met President George W. Bush and baked cookies with Jennifer Love Hewitt as part of her physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She met Brad Pitt, whom she said was one of her favorites because "he's so dreamy," and danced with Matthew McConaughey. She described Ben Affleck as a super sweet guy and pointed out that he's married to another West

Virginia girl, actress Jennifer Garner.   

"If I wanted the media I would have moved to Los Angeles or New York and sought more after it," she said. "I'm a West Virginia girl and this is home to me. I think that kind of helped because I didn't put myself out there. I'm living normal."

The media attention has died down, something she's grateful for because she wants her daughter to have a normal upbringing like she had.

Lynch recalled newspaper photographers hiding out around the hospital the day her daughter was born and later having to make some covert maneuvers to get around them when it was time to go home.

 

'Let's not forget'

She'll be briefly stepping back into the limelight next month as the exhibit opens at the Culture Center. It's the first museum exhibit about her, she said.

The exhibit will feature Lynch's personal items, such as her uniforms and hats and medals - she was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Also included will be photos and other items given to her, everything from a framed American flag from a former U.S. Speaker of the House to a blonde Barbie doll that a fan fashioned in Army fatigues to resemble Lynch. All are on loan and will be returned to her.

Charles Morris, museums director at the Culture Center, and his staff already have begun categorizing and making tags for the exhibit. It will be set up in the Great Hall with items commemorating the state's sesquicentennial.

"It's going to be a great exhibit because there's a combination of personal artifacts and things that people have sent and created in her honor so I think the combination's going to make it a nice exhibit," he said.

Caryn Gresham, deputy commissioner of the state Division of Culture and History, was excited for the exhibit and Lynch's planned visit to speak at the opening and later in the month to students.

"I think the neatest things about the exhibit that Charles and his staff do is that you really get a great picture of whatever the subject is," Gresham said. "Whether it's the 150th anniversary or this exhibit on Jessica, I think they have a great way of bringing together things that make you see a person or a place in a really neat way."

Lynch said she hoped that 10 years after the beginning of the Iraq War, which officially ended in December 2011, people still would remember the service members still at war in Afghanistan.

"It's sad unless you have a friend or family member or a close relative who is serving - we get busy with our lives and we forget that there's still soldiers over there sleeping on the ground," Lynch said.

"That's why I think it's important to remind people that we still have soldiers throughout this world stationed everywhere that still need to be supported and be given the same attention they were when the war in Iraq started 10 years ago.

"It's so easy nowadays to kind of forget that we still have soldiers that are fighting over there and that they still need our support and our prayers to just bring them home safely," she said.

"Let's not forget about those that are still serving."

A reception will be held 6 to 8 p.m. April 1 at the Culture Center. Lynch will speak at the event, which is free and open to the public, and will meet with guests.

She also will make presentations, geared toward middle and high school students, at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on April 10 in the State Theater in the Culture Center. Those hour-long presentations are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4850.

 


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