The Private Jessica Lynch

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STEVE HELBER/AP

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

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However many people are bothered by that question, Jessica Lynch is not among them. She knows she spent nine days in an Iraqi hospital with 10 broken bones, unable to move and leaking blood—and she has only praise for the Army and the soldiers who saved her. "The whole idea that the rescue was staged or the soldiers were shooting blanks, that's just obvious stuff," she says. "Why would you do that in the middle of a war? It's just crazy." She never claimed to have mowed down the attacking Iraqis; she never had the chance—her sand-clogged rifle wouldn't fire. She never said she'd been shot or stabbed, as early reports suggested; it was the doctors in Landstuhl, Germany, who broke the news to her about the full extent of her injuries: the multiple fractures of arm and legs, the spinal damage that robbed her of control of her bowels and bladder—and the trauma that could not be explained by the humvee crash. Sometime after the crash and before she was delivered to Nasiriyah hospital—a time period that could have been as long as three hours—she appeared to have been forcibly penetrated by someone or something: "The exam in Landstuhl," Dr. Greg Argyros, her primary doctor during her 100 days at Walter Reed Medical Center, told TIME, "indicated that the injuries were consistent with possible anal sexual assault."

The Iraqi doctor who saved her life that first day with emergency surgery and blood transfusions, told the Associated Press that during his exam he saw no such evidence. Lynch says she has no memory of what happened immediately after the crash. That's not surprising, Argyros says, because "she was so unbelievably sick and probably in shock for most of the time in the Iraqi hospital."

She does not call herself a hero, because the word hurts too much when so many died, and her best friend's body was pulled out of a shallow grave on the hospital grounds by the same commandos who rescued her. That friend, Lori Piestewa, is her hero, for staying so calm under fire, as are the soldiers who fought bravely all around her. She herself did not fire a shot and spent most of her time in the humvee huddled in a protective ball. Ask Lynch what she would like to symbolize, and there is a long, long pause. "I haven't really thought about that," she says, even if everyone else has. "I guess," she says, searching for the meaning of her story as the soldier recedes and the aspiring kindergarten teacher emerges. "I could be, you know, the person that shows little kids that giving up isn't something that you should do."

Lynch is too intent on moving forward to spend a lot of time looking back. She has read Bragg's book but says she skipped the parts that were too hard to relive, the things that made her parents cry. Ever since she was a child, both her parents say, she was strong minded, determined; that tenacity, so crucial to her physical recovery, may also be what saves her from being crushed by the attention that now surrounds her. "When it's all over," says her father Greg Lynch, "she'll just be an old country girl"—the label a shorthand for the virtues that matter, like kindness and toughness. For all the attention, all the books and banners and presents and parades, her parents understand that Jessica Lynch had become a convenient shorthand for this war, its first name and memorable face. "But there's other soldiers with names and faces and families just like us," says her mother Dee. "I hope people don't forget. They need just as much prayer and support as us. This is not just about Jessi—it's about all the soldiers."

Dee was never one for letting go of her kids, never big on sleepovers. She had a hard time when Greg Jr. went off to college. He did his first year on scholarship and was trying to work, but he didn't have the money for his second year. But when the Army recruiter came from Parkersburg, all three Lynch kids—Greg, Jessica and Brandi—were interested in what he had to say.

He talked about the travel, and the training they would get. This was the summer of 2001, before there was even a whisper of war in the air. But "he did not lie to the kids," Dee Lynch says. He said there was always the possibility of war in the future. "But at that time it was before Sept. 11, and there was no terrorism," Jessica recalls, "so we were like, 'That would never happen to me.'"

For someone who loved the idea of traveling, wanted to go to college and believed deeply in duty and service, the Army was a natural choice: and yet pretty much everyone, her classmates, her family, were surprised that Jessica would join up along with Greg. She was, Dee says, "a prissy tomboy, if there is such a thing," the girl for whom, even when she was out playing on the hillside, "her socks and hair bows had to match." In third grade when she broke her arm, the doctor gave her a pink cast, and she went out and got new pink shoelaces for her sneakers. She figures she could have found a job somewhere near home, "but that wasn't me," Jessica says. "I wanted to improve my life and not just be there in Palestine forever. I wanted to get out and do something."

She left for basic training on Sept. 19, 2001, barely a week after the terrorist attacks; she wound up in Texas at Fort Bliss, where she made about $1,100-a-month as a supply clerk, keeping records, ordering toilet paper. She thought it would be good business experience and steady, safe."They told me I'd never probably see the front-line area," she says. It was at Fort Bliss that Lynch found her soulmates: her boyfriend Ruben Contreras and her roommate Lori Piestewa, best friend and protector. Lori was a Hopi Indian, the single mother of two. "We were completely opposite people—two different worlds it seemed like we came from," Lynch says. "But we clicked. She was like my sister, the big sister that I never had."

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