The Private Jessica Lynch


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

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    In January they heard they would be shipping out to Iraq. "Of course I had a mother's sick feeling when I heard the word deployment," Dee says. "But I thought, Oh, she's in supply, she'll be safe, she'll never be close to any actual fighting. I trusted her unit, trusted the Army that she got the proper training." Jessica even had a special advantage. She had grown up with her dad's Kenworth cab-over truck in the front yard; he gets a $1 a mile driving anywhere from Florida to Connecticut. Now she would be the one steering five-ton trucks full of supplies to the front. "It's always in the back of your mind that something can happen," says Greg Lynch. "You wonder, Is the equipment ready? Have they trained enough? I don't know." He knows all the things that can go wrong even under the best circumstances. "They trained with those trucks on cement. Bases don't have sand, and they don't have sand like over there. You put one of those machines in sand for eight, 10 hours. That's when you see what you really got."

    What they got, in Jessica Lynch's case, was not just one bad break but one after another in the first days of the war. The battle plan didn't allow for engines ambushed by sand. And judgment and reflexes are not sharpened by three days with no sleep. "To me, we weren't ready," Lynch says. "But obviously they wouldn't have sent us over there if they didn't think we were ready." The 507th Maintenance Company was at the very end of an 8,000-vehicle, 100-mile-long supply convoy. From the start, Lynch says, "it just didn't feel right. It really kicked in once we got into Iraq."

    Because it was a support unit, the 507th was equipped for duty behind the front lines—except that the front turned out to be beside and behind and all around them. There were no antitank weapons, no heavy artillery, just a .50-cal. machine gun that—like the soldier's M-16 rifles—didn't work too well, clogged and jammed with three days' worth of blowing sand. By the time her lost convoy came under fire in the streets of Nasiriyah, Lynch's rifle was about as much use as a hockey stick. Their instructions had been to clean their weapons "anytime we got the chance," Lynch says, "but we never really had a chance."

    Her unit, says the official Army report on what happened, "found itself in a desperate situation due to a navigational error caused by the combined effects of the operational pace, acute fatigue, isolation and the harsh environmental conditions. The tragic results of this error placed the soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company in a torrent of fire." During the roughly 11 1/2-hour-long fire fight that they endured, the report concludes, "every soldier performed honorably and did his or her duty."

    As for how that battle and Lynch's cameo in it turned into a breathless movie script, that was less a conscious public relations ploy, Pentagon officials say, than "a comedy of errors." According to several officials, a "single-source intelligence report, nonconfirmed," surfaced detailing the 507th's battle, just about the time Lynch was rescued. "It said that our people who ran were killed, and those who put up resistance were captured, and that there was a female who fought to her last breath," a senior Pentagon official said. "It was like a five-line report that wasn't grounded in anything, but it got distributed anyway—and someone exaggerated what it said. It was somebody grasping at straws, someone who was on the periphery and not knowing really what was going on." And that someone guessed that the female in question must have been Jessica Lynch and told the Washington Post. "I think," another senior military official admits, "it was the Army looking for a hero."

    You turn down a road that is made, at best, for two skinny cars, to get to her house in the hollow. Greg Lynch grew up half a mile from here, in the house his great-grandmother lived in. He picked out the spot for his own future home when he was 11 years old. "We raised three kids in four rooms, and we were happy and content," Dee says, "but with Jessi's disability, we just knew there was no way." When they learned their daughter was alive but in a pretty broken state, they debated what they were going to do when she came home. "We talked about building her a room downstairs, with a bathroom," Dee says. There were neighbors over at the house, as there always were during those hard days, and they asked if they could help. Next thing the Lynches knew, a team of friends had set to work on the house, as the family headed to Germany on a Heinz corporation jet ("It was my first experience of flying," Dee says, "and it was like a Cadillac!").

    Their joy at Jessica's survival smacked headlong into her actual condition. When her parents first saw her in the intensive-care unit in Landstuhl, "we didn't know where we could touch her," Dee recalls. "She's this tiny thing in this big bed, and the first thing I saw was the bag of blood. Then you really know it was serious." The front of her head was shaved, because of a laceration; the perfect bangs were gone. "It was so sad," Dee remembers. She had brought her camcorder—and never took it out of its case. These weren't memories to save. "But we held her hand and kissed her, and she looked up and said, "Hi, Mommy. You made it."

    As the doctors briefed them on Jessica's prognosis, they realized they would be taking one day at a time. "I thought, O.K., she's here, she's alive," Dee says. "We'll deal with the rest as we go." Jessi hadn't eaten in days. "She really wanted hot, real mashed potatoes, not those instant ones, and turkey gravy," Dee says. Jessica's memory of those days is more hazy. "I think the whole ordeal was just a terrible thing to happen to anyone," Jessi says. And of the missing three hours she is vague but matter-of-fact. "Since I don't know what happened, I was unconscious through that whole thing, it's like reading a book that really wasn't about me."

    She had no idea that during the nine days of her captivity, and then with her rescue, her name and face had been beamed all around the world. She had no idea that the rescue video had been released by the Pentagon. "I didn't think that anyone out there even knew I existed, let alone write me a letter," she says. "I was asking my mom, 'Did I make the hometown Journal?' She was like, 'Yeah, you made it, plus all these world papers.'"

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