POINT PLEASANT — Sharing her story of perseverance and survival, Jessica Lynch, veteran and former Prisoner Of War, had the full attention of those gathered at the annual Mason County Area Chamber of Commerce Dinner and Awards Banquet on Thursday evening.
The native of Palestine, West Virginia found herself the subject of headlines across the globe when she was captured by Iraqi forces in 2003 and subsequently rescued by U.S. Special Operations Forces.
She told those gathered, she had her future mapped out as a graduating high school senior and had planned to attend Glenville State College to study education and become a teacher, when she and her brother decided to join the military. Hoping to ease the financial burden on her parents when it came to her education, she found herself headed in a different direction, though hopeful to eventually return to her dream of becoming an educator.
Shortly after enlisting, September 11th happened. She found herself making it through basic training and was a supply clerk in a maintenance company. She joked she had one of the most important jobs in the company – ordering toilet paper.
In February 2003, her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, was deployed to Iraq. Then, on March 23, 2003 that unit was ambushed near Nassiriya. Prior to the ambush, she said “it just didn’t feel right” and recalled an eeriness. She then recounted the fire fight that erupted around her unit and the unit’s malfunctioning and jammed weapons.
“We were ducks in the middle of a pond with nowhere to run, nowhere to hire,” she said. “We were just being bombarded by these Iraqis.”
Feeling “helpless,” Lynch said she and her fellow soldiers had no way to defend themselves in the soft shell Humvee. Her best friend Lori Piestewa was driving the vehicle. Lynch remembered a bullet coming through the window in front of Piestewa’s face, barely missing her friend’s head. Lynch recalled that was the moment when what was happening became real on an entirely different level.
“I remember her (Piestewa) driving really fast…and then we were stuck by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade,” Lynch said, adding her friend lost control of the vehicle and it crashed into another disabled vehicle. Piestewa would later die from head trauma and Lynch’s First Sargeant and two other soldiers who were sitting beside her in the Humvee were shot and killed.
Badly injured, Lynch was taken by the Iraqis and stripped her of her military gear. While in captivity, she was seriously injured, suffering a broken back, right arm, right foot, left femur, left tibia, a laceration to her head, and several cracked ribs.
She recalled waking up in excruciating pain with Iraqi men standing above her, with her first instinct to attempt to jerk away or jump to get away but she coudn’t feel anything from the waist down and couldn’t move her right arm.
At one point, she was told by her captors her leg would be amputated. She begged them not to do it, and “by some miracle” that amputation didn’t happen. After being transported to another location with no lights, no electricity and being left alone in the dark with only her thoughts from sun up to sundown, she was afraid to scream for fear of drawing the wrong kind of attention. The next day, the men returned and drove her back to a hospital where a few days after that, she heard new voices. She heard a Humvee, a helicopter, bombs going off and then gunshots outside her room.
“I remember thinking they don’t know I’m in here, this is the next building they’re going to bomb to take down,” she said.
The next thing she heard were loud voices demanding, “Where is Private Lynch?”
“At that moment, I knew good or bad, I was their target.”
With her Iraqi captors gone from her room, a soldier entered, stood beside her and ripped the American flag from his uniform and placed it in her hand.
“He said ‘we’re American soldiers and we’re here to take you home,’” she recalled.
She was rescued on April 1, 2003.
She then went on to undergo extensive physical therapy and to this day, has a limp where she favors her right side. She said she’s OK with that because at least she’s still here.
Of course, her story as a young Army Private has been well publicized but what about Lynch now?
She did go on to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Master’s Degree in Communications and enjoys her time in the classroom and of course, time with her 12-year old daughter.
“With everything I have been through I am extremely blessed,” she said. “I am so fortunate that I get to be here to tell my story.”
In addition, Lynch said when sharing her message, it’s not about what she went though but shining a light on PTSD and what other veterans are going through and how can she help them.
She talked about meeting those other veterans and how “it’s so true that we all have stories, everybody, not just veterans. We all have something that we are going through in our lives, whether it’s financial, educational, whatever it happens to be, we all have those hurdles we need to jump over and overcome. That’s my message to you today, no matter what you are going through, just never give up, keep pursuing your dream, have that mentality, that never-give-up-attitude within you that you can, and will, overcome whatever you’re going through in your own lives.”
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.