Jessica Lynch is a pert, 19-year-old blond from hardscrabble West Virginia who saw only one way out: join the military and get enough education to become a kindergarten teacher. Little did she realize her life as an army supply clerk was about to become the stuff of legend. Attacked and captured by Iraqi soldiers when her unit took a wrong turn in the desert, Lynch spent 10 apparently horrific days as a POW only to be rescued in a late-night raid. For a nation whose military machine was at that point being nibbled to death by doubters-too few soldiers, the pundits said, and who’d send a fivefoot-four young woman to a war zone?—this was the morale boost that seemed to kickstart the march to Baghdad.
The rescue of Pte. Lynch-by U.S. special forces shooting their way in and out of her hospital complex-was almost pure Hollywood. Except, it’s easy to forget, this was the first successful U.S. rescue of a POW since the Second World War, historians noted. What’s more, though military commanders made much of the credo of “never leaving a comrade behind,” this raid was daring on a number of fronts. After the celebrated failure to extricate American hostages from Iran in 1980, a miscue this time could have had the doubters out in full bore. Tempering the glory, the raiding party was directed to the bodies of 11 dead soldiers. Nine were believed to be Americans, quite possibly the missing members from Lynch’s 15-strong supply unit, a group that also included five POWs shown on Iraqi TV immediately following the March 23 ambush.
The rescue itself was exquisitely planned. Marines set up a diversionary attack across the Euphrates River, while navy Seals and army
Rangers rushed the Saddam hospital in An Nasiriyah, where Lynch was being held. But none of this could have happened, it emerged later, without the help of a compassionate Iraqi and his wife, a nurse at the hospital, who took pity on the sobbing young POW. The man walked 10 km into the desert to surrender to U.S. troops, told them what he knew, then went back and forth so he could draw a series of maps showing where guards were stationed.
Meanwhile, in improbably named Palestine, W. Va., the Lynch family thought at first it was an April Fool’s joke when authorities called to tell them of the rescue. But soon the entire state was rejoicing. Two colleges have already offered Lynch financial assistance to become a teacher, though the extent of her injuries are not fully known. She is being treated in Germany for broken legs and ankles and a fracture in the spine. But Jessica’s a real scrapper, her old softball coach said: “She didn’t have any quit.” And her younger sister is set to enlist this summer, once high school’s out. ROBERT SHEPPARD
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