For Jessica Lynch, every waking moment serves as a haunting reminder of all she endured as America’s first prisoner of war in the early days of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Things that had once been second nature now have to be done methodically and with great effort. Each morning begins with pulling on a leg brace. She cannot sit for too long without fiery jabs in the parts of her back that broke. Her left side is still riddled with the strange discomfort of numbness from nerve damage. That is the side where her foot was crushed, and that has ignited a host of complications derived from overcompensating on her right side.
Most recently, hope was dashed by disappointment after Lynch suffered an allergic reaction to a new, specially crafted leg brace. Only she harbors no antagonism, no bitterness, no hate.
“I try not to complain about the physical elements; there are so many people out there dealing with the same things or worse. I have learned to accept this is who I am, and I am okay with it,” Lynch said spiritedly in a recent interview with Coffee or Die Magazine.
Her life 18 years after becoming a household name is one of vivacity and gratitude, focused on imparting pearls of acquired wisdom to lift up as many of her brethren as possible. Having just turned 38 this week, she has taken on a long-term substitute teaching role for third graders in her tiny hometown in West Virginia — a culmination of a lifelong dream.
“Ever since I was 5, teaching was what I wanted to do. It was my kindergarten teacher who inspired me; I looked up to her and the heart that she put into it. She was so loving and caring,” Lynch said, adding that they are still in contact today. “So when I (retired) from the military, I went back to get my education. And teaching has been keeping me busy ever since.”
To the students, she is just Ms. Lynch. These are the moments when she can forget the war and what happened. But to much of America, there are many layers of mystery about the former soldier. In addition to her classroom duties, Lynch shares her nuggets of survival or seeks to uplift others on the speaking circuit across the country.
Indeed, her story is as searing as it is uplifting.
Lynch’s journey to becoming a US soldier was an abrupt one. A recruiter visited her family home in the late spring after she graduated high school in 2001, and both she and her brother decided to sign on as a means of seeing the world and to ease the college debt burden off her parents. Shortly after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, Lynch was in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Around Thanksgiving the following year, rumbles of another war — this time not in the jagged topography of Afghanistan but the arid, oil-swathed plains of Iraq — started circulating. Never in Lynch’s wildest dreams could she have imagined she and her 507th Maintenance Company would soon be one of the first on the ground just as President George W. Bush declared war.
That was March 20, 2003.
Three days later, her unit embarked on a trip toward Baghdad in a convoy of vehicles. Trouble with their navigation equipment spurred Lynch’s rear supply vehicle to be separated from the others. Suddenly, as they neared the southern city of Nasiriyah, the horrors of an ambush unfolded. As Lynch would later learn, 11 from her company were killed in the skirmish.
A rocket-propelled grenade smashed through the rear of the vehicle, causing it to crash into an 18-wheeler and Lynch — who suffered crushing injuries to her legs and feet, and a broken back — to lose consciousness.
When she awoke, the 19-year-old private first class was surrounded by soldiers of then-dictator Saddam Hussein. Her POW nightmare had begun, and the events to follow would not be lost to the fog of war but — to this day — remain vivid in her mind.
“I never had any real training on how to survive as a POW. It wasn’t anything they had put us through back then. I was just thankful that I was [eventually] handed over from the bad Iraqis, to three Iraqi men who were kind of my guardians,” Lynch said softly. “I just knew with each day passing that I was becoming weaker and weaker due to the injuries, no food, and not much water. I was all alone, I was mentally exhausted, and that takes a toll on you.”
Lynch had been taken to Nasiriyah’s Saddam Hussein General Hospital, where doctors surgically removed her femur and replaced it with an unsterilized rod built for a man — which would set off another chain of medical maladies. But the most chilling moment, for her, came when she was taken down to an operating room. Doctors were preparing to amputate her leg.
“I just started begging and crying and pleading for them to stop and not do it,” Lynch said softly. “That was my lowest point. After that, I was afraid to sleep or even close my eyes because of what they might do.”
A few days later, the Iraqis around her vowed to return her to a US-manned checkpoint. Instead, she was loaded up into an ambulance and dumped at an abandoned building where there was no electricity or water or even faint sounds of children playing or the noises of nature, of life.
“I remember the Iraqis leaving me. At that point, I didn’t know whether it was my opportunity to scream and yell and draw attention to myself in the hopes that Americans might be near,” Lynch recalled. “Or whether I should just lay in silence. I feared I could attract the wrong attention, and I didn’t want to end up in the hands of the militiamen all over again. So I chose just to lay there quietly, basically, as night turned into day and day turned into night.”
The ensuing minutes melted into hours and then into days. Lynch had no sense of time, of location, as if existing on the thin crag that distinguishes the living from the dead.
“I did not know if I would ever be found. It felt like nine years lying there all alone, or just one big bad day,” she said.
Yet even through the endless physical pain and psychological ups and downs and unknowns, one thing Lynch never wholly lost as she held on in the achingly still building was hope.
“In my head, I was telling myself to hold out for one more day and then one more day. At one point, I thought the odds were against me, and I wasn’t going to make it,” she continued. “But I thought of my family, my friends. I created scenes in my head of what they would be thinking. I always tried to make those scenes as positive as I could.”
The sky changed from the night gray to light once again. But this time, men came and moved Lynch back to the hospital. Her memories are foggy, but she recalled hearing the soundtrack change: Bombs cracked the sky outside in what was a diversionary attack conducted by US Marines. The US military had received information as to Lynch’s whereabouts, and a team of special operations forces had swooped in on a rescue mission.
“It had all felt unreal, these men standing beside me and telling me they were Americans and that they were there to take me home,” she said slowly, unwrapping each moment. “And then it hit home that I might actually make it home.”
It was April 1, 2003, and Lynch had made it through nine arduous days as a POW. Her rescue marked the first of an American prisoner of war since World War II and the first of a woman. Lynch has tried to stay in communication with some of those saviors, among them Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. She’s lost some contact due to the passage of time, but her thoughts are with them daily.
In addition to a lengthy stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and countless medical procedures, the young Lynch — a notoriously shy, rural-raised country girl — had to deal with the immediate and dizzying onslaught of overnight fame.
“It was hectic. It was never my dream to go out and be a Nashville star or an LA actor. I never wanted to be out in public. But things just took off,” she said. “I was still in hospital and getting ready to get out of the military, and suddenly I had a lawyer and a publicist and an agent and a book deal and all things. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
Life is far quieter now, yet still tinged with occasional deluges of emotion.
“I am so thankful to be surrounded by so many people that have lifted me through the down days. I am human just like everyone else, and there are days when I want to kick and scream, and there are a lot of good friends I can call and vent to,” Lynch said. “But there are times too when I really like to be alone. I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t be alone in hard times. But for me, that is when I need to be alone to process the thoughts and feelings on my own terms.”
Lynch stressed, however, that if those dark days go on too long, those who she loves the most know to step in with a helping hand. And although she has long retired her Army uniform, Lynch’s life is still one dedicated to service — engaging with the veteran community and raising awareness of the military missing. As it stands, the remains of nearly 82,000 Americans are still unaccounted for, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA. DPAA estimates that 75% of the disappeared are across the Indo-Pacific region, with more than 40,000 presumed to have been lost at sea.
Lynch is also working on her second book, this one focused on leadership and the lessons learned along the way.
“I can’t turn back time and change what I went through, and I wish that my comrades were still here, but my motto has always been about perseverance,” Lynch said. “To push through the obstacles that stand in your way and never give up. I have learned not to sweat the small stuff.”
Above all, the upbeat and bubbly veteran has no hesitation in highlighting that her most important role is as a mother to her now 14-year-old daughter Dakota Ann, named in honor of her close friend Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, who lost her life from injuries received in the 2003 ambush.
“[Dakota] has learned about what happened mostly through speeches I have given. I didn’t talk about a lot of the details at a young age. But I have never kept anything from her,” Lynch said. “She has been very quick to pick up a lot on it and now understands a lot more.”
Dakota doesn’t have any current plans to follow in her mother’s military footsteps but is also inspired to serve in a different way.
“She is pretty set on becoming a physical therapist. She has been with me through all of the healing, all of the appointments, her whole life,” Lynch said. “And always wanted to nurture and take care of me. Now, she hopes someday to help others the same way.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed to reflect that Lynch attended basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina.