The Private Jessica Lynch

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STEVE HELBER/AP

Lynch on the front porch of her home in Palestine, W.Va.

Forty steps. Each one is a gamble: lift, lunge, tilt, then land with a stab of the foot she can't feel. The soldier who came out of Iraq on a stretcher and back to the States in a wheelchair can now, seven months later, take 40 steps by herself. Each one is a victory.

It's getting dark and cold in this part of West Virginia. But here in rehab the lights are bright and Jessica Lynch is in shorts, a baggy T shirt and sneakers from Wal-Mart that are a half size too big, to make room for the brace that keeps her left foot from dragging.

"Good, Jessi, that's good." Physical therapist Burt Reed seems about twice her size as he holds her steady, so she can practice walking forward and backward between the padded tables and weight machines. For just a moment, you can imagine they are dancing. And then the time comes when Reed steps back and she's on her own, as if she's walking a wide tightrope, careful, dangerous. "Good, Jessi"—her hands are fists, her jaw is set—"keep going," and you sense she is counting the steps under her breath.

Amid the jagged scars all over her body, there is a neat line of six holes from left knee to ankle, like vicious bites, where the rods of the external fixator held the bones in place for the first two months after her legs were broken.

That came off June 26, she recalls. Lynch has a crisp memory for dates; how long she was in which hospital, which day she made which breakthrough—everything except for the first, darkest moments of her captivity. Of those, she says she has no recollection. Otherwise she is organized, thorough, precise. Perfect qualities for a supply clerk. And she is pale, skinny, with thin, straight legs that look as if they would be easy to snap. Hardly ideal for surviving the most deadly ambush of the war: 11 of the 33 soldiers with her died that day, seven were captured, nine wounded. She's the only one in her wrecked humvee who survived.

Lynch joined the Army when she was 18 because she wanted to see the world. Now it seems as though the whole world wants to see her, hear the truth about what happened to her and in the process confirm their instincts about the war: what went right, what went wrong, what it means. They will have their chance this week with the publication of Rick Bragg's spare, wrenching account of her life and her war. Diane Sawyer went down to Palestine to see her; this week Lynch will visit New York City for the first time, make the rounds, do Letterman and learn whether the toughness she has shown to make it this far will protect her now.

It is a fearsome thing to be turned into an icon, draped with powers and meanings of other people's choosing. To the thousands who wrote letters, sent teddy bears and flowers and handmade quilts, to the millions who prayed for her safety, Lynch is an archetypal American soldier, a symbol of courage under fire. As the challenge in Iraq grows, as the nightly body count reminds us of the terrible risks the soldiers face, people want to show they care: Lynch's is the name they know, and so the letters keep pouring in, and old women press notes scribbled on napkins into her hands when she goes to the mall: "Thank you for your service."

But to others she is useful as a symbol of something else. The news of her rescue, complete with the spooky green night-video footage, came at just the moment when the nation was hungry for good news out of a hard war. "She was fighting to the death," an anonymous source told the Washington Post, in an account of her capture and dramatic rescue that seemed more like a movie pitch than a news story. "She did not want to be taken alive." It was all so well timed, such an emotional turning point, that questions began to rise: How had her unit got lost in the first place? Had she actually fired her weapon or been shot herself? Was it was really such a daring rescue if there was no one guarding her anymore by the time the commandos whisked her out? Before long, she had become a symbol for war critics of many of their complaints: bad information and worse planning; soldiers insufficiently trained or ill equipped for the mission they confronted; a Pentagon willing to stretch the truth to boost morale. One bbc report dismissed the rescue operation as "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." And so the uncertainty fluttered around her: Was she a hero, or a pawn?

But to others she is useful as a symbol of something else. The news of her rescue, complete with the spooky green night-video footage, came at just the moment when the nation was hungry for good news out of a hard war. "She was fighting to the death," an anonymous source told the Washington Post, in an account of her capture and dramatic rescue that seemed more like a movie pitch than a news story. "She did not want to be taken alive." It was all so well timed, such an emotional turning point, that questions began to rise: How had her unit got lost in the first place? Had she actually fired her weapon or been shot herself? Was it was really such a daring rescue if there was no one guarding her anymore by the time the commandos whisked her out? Before long, she had become a symbol for war critics of many of their complaints: bad information and worse planning; soldiers insufficiently trained or ill equipped for the mission they confronted; a Pentagon willing to stretch the truth to boost morale. One bbc report dismissed the rescue operation as "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." And so the uncertainty fluttered around her: Was she a hero, or a pawn?

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