The First Casualty
It became the story of the war, boosting morale at home and among the troops. It was irresistible and cinematic: the maintenance clerk turned woman-warrior. Hollywood promised to make a movie.US soldier Jessica Lynch and her army maintenance unit were ambushed in southern Iraq on March 23. Lynch was taken prisoner and held separately for nine days before a dramatic rescue from her hospital bed by a covert US Special Operations unit.Initial news reports said Lynch emptied her M-16 into Iraqi soldiers. They said she fought fiercely, was stabbed and shot multiple times, and that she killed several of her assailants. "She was fighting to the death," one official was quoted as saying.The truth has less of Tinseltown about it. Lynch tried to fire her weapon but it jammed. She did not kill any Iraqis. She was neither shot nor stabbed.The full-scale rescue of her from a Nasiriyah hospital, while justified in terms of the uncertainty confronting US forces as they entered the hospital compound, ultimately was proven unnecessary. Iraqi combatants had left the hospital, leaving Lynch in the hands of doctors and nurses who said they were eager to turn her over to Americans.Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticised initial version of her capture, helping to foster the myth surrounding Lynch and fuel accusations that the Bush Administration stage-managed parts of her story.On the western outskirts of Nasiriyah, a middle-aged farmer named Sahib Khudher was worried. He was outside his house when a large US convoy passed by on the road heading north at a few hours before dawn. It was March 23, the third day of the war, and US troops were pouring into Iraq.The farmer waved at the Americans. "But they did not see me," he said. A few hours later, trucks mysteriously returned. At first, Khudher thought they might be members of the Iraqi Army, or Republican Guards. But he saw that the vehicles were American. They were being chased in a wild, running gun battle with utilities filled with what Khudher assumed were militia from Saddam's fedayeen and Iraqi irregulars in civilian clothes."There was shooting, shooting everywhere," Khudher said. "There were accidents, too. Crash sounds. You could see and hear the vehicles hitting each other. And yelling. Screaming. I could hear English." The 18 Humvees, trailers and tow trucks of Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company were the tail end of the 3rd Infantry Division's 8000-vehicle convoy, snaking its way from Kuwait to Baghdad. A Patriot missile maintenance crew by training, the members of the 507th, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, were assigned to keep the army's war machine moving.The initial plan called for moving north on "Route Blue", Highway 8, to the southern outskirts of Nasiriyah, according to military officials. Because the city still teemed with enemy fighters, commanders decided to reroute the column to "Route Jackson", Highway 1, which skirted the town to the south and west.But, in an error one army official attributes to "the fog of war", the 507th never got word of the change. The unit fell behind as the enormous wrecking tractors and cargo trailers - equipment to haul other giant army vehicles and supplies - tried to adjust to the division's changing pace.Other mishaps contributed. Long before they reached Nasiriyah, two of the 507th's five-tonne trailers had broken down, forcing the back half of the unit - 18 vehicles in all - to fall further behind.Lynch was in that trailing half. At times, the 507th was 12 hours behind the main column and frequently out of radio contact. By the time the 507th reached Nasiriyah, some of the unit's soldiers and officers had gone without sleep for 60 hours. As one officer put it, they suffered "a fatigue that adversely affected their decision-making". Lynch was riding on a five-tonne truck, officials believe. It was 7am and more Iraqis were appearing on the streets, said military officials with knowledge of the army investigation into her case. The company commander instructed his troops to lock and load their weapons. The senior non-commissioned officer, Master Sergeant Robert Dowdy, 38, took the rear position in the column, while the company commander went up front."We have to pick up speed, move faster!" Dowdy began yelling over the radio, according to the defence official, who has read surviving soldiers' accounts.As the convoy drove back into central Nasiriyah, it was met by Iraqi forces who fired AK-47s, machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells and hand grenades. At least one Iraqi T-55 tank appeared, and the Iraqis positioned sandbags, debris and cars to block the convoy's path."A very harrowing, very intense" gun battle was how the senior military officer described it. The US troops fired back. "We don't know how many rounds she got off," the official said of Lynch. It was not known whether she got off any shots at all. "Her weapon jammed severely." At some point, Lynch's vehicle is believed to have broken down and she got into Dowdy's soft-top Humvee, driven by her fellow private and close friend, Lori Piestewa. They were joined by two other soldiers whose wrecker had become disabled. Dowdy pulled them to safety at great risk to himself, the defence official said. They took the seats on either side of Lynch, who sat atop the transmission hump in the middle.As his soldiers came under fire, Dowdy sped along the road at speeds of 80 km/h, encouraging his soldiers "to get into the fight, trying to get vehicles to move and getting soldiers out of one broken-down vehicle and into another", the senior military officer said. The soldiers in Dowdy's Humvee "had their weapons at the ready and their seatbelts off. We assume they were firing back." A US tractor-trailer with a flatbed swerved around an Iraqi dump truck and jackknifed. As Dowdy's speeding Humvee approached the overturned tractor-trailer, it was hit on the driver's side by a rocket-propelled grenade. The driver, Piestewa, lost control of the Humvee, swerved right and struck the trailer. The collision, said the senior defence official, was "catastrophic".Dowdy, sitting in the passenger seat, was killed instantly. So, probably, were the two soldiers on either side of Lynch. Piestewa and Lynch were seriously injured.Lynch's arm and legs were crushed by the compression, US military doctors would later conclude. Tiny bone fragments protruded through her skin.Khudher, the Iraqi farmer, remembered seeing a Humvee crash into a truck. Later, when it was safe to approach the road, he saw "two American women, one dark-skinned, one light-skinned, pulled from the Humvee". Khudher appears to have seen Lynch, who is white, taken prisoner, as well as Piestewa, who was Native American, still alive.In the hours after the ambush, Arabic-speaking interpreters at the National Security Agency, reviewing intercepted Iraqi communications from either hand-held radios or mobile phones, heard references to "an American female soldier with blonde hair who was very brave and fought against them", according to a senior military officer who read the top-secret intelligence report when it came in. An intelligence source cited reports from Iraqis at the scene, saying she had fired all her ammunition.Over the next hours and days, commanders at Central Command, which was running the war from Doha, Qatar, and CIA officers with them at headquarters, were bombarded with military "sit reps" and agency Field Information Reports about the ambush, according to intelligence and military sources. The Iraqi reports included information about a female soldier. One said she had died in battle. Some said she was wounded by shrapnel. Some said she had been shot in the arm and leg and stabbed.These reports were distributed only to generals, intelligence officers and policymakers in Washington who are cleared to read the most sensitive information the US Government possesses.These intelligence reports, and the one eavesdropped snippet, created the story of the war.Down a two-lane blacktop rolling through dry farmlands, just one or two kilometres from the ambush site, lies the Iraqi military hospital of Nasiriyah. Today, the three-storey structure is a gutted ruin.That morning, the military hospital was a beehive, with fleeing, fighting and wounded Iraqi troops coming and going.Adnan Mushafafawi, a brigadier in the Iraqi army medical corps, a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and the director of the hospital, said a policeman brought in two female US soldiers about 10am. "They were both unconscious," he said. They were severely wounded, he recalled. He read their dog tags: they were Lynch and her friend Lori Piestewa."Miss Lori," Mushafafawi said, "had bruises all over her face. She was bleeding from the eyes. A severe head wound." He said Piestewa died soon after arriving at the hospital.Did either soldier display evidence she had been stabbed or shot? "No, no," he said. Pressed, he later answered: "Maybe Miss Lori; maybe shot." Mushafafawi said he and his medical staff cut away Lynch's uniform and threw her clothes on the floor. She lay on a trolley, almost naked, as Iraqi military doctors and nurses worked on her, he said.Lynch had multiple fractures and a head injury that he described as minor. He said the staff sutured the wound. She was given blood and intravenous fluids. The staff took X-rays, partly set her fractures and applied splints and plaster casts to them. "If we had left her without treatment, she would have died," Mushafafawi said.The military doctor said Lynch briefly regained consciousness at his hospital but appeared disoriented. "She was very scared," he said.When Mushafafawi suggested to Lynch that he might attempt to better set her leg fracture, Lynch told him no. "She didn't want us to do anything more," he recalled. She was then transferred by military ambulance to Nasiriyah's main civilian facility, Saddam Hussein General Hospital, across town.Mushafafawi said he assumed his military hospital would probably be attacked by US forces (two days later they overran the compound). He said that it was his decision to transfer Lynch and that no military or intelligence officers accompanied her. Piestewa's body also was taken to Saddam Hussein Hospital.Later that day, the Arab news network al-Jazeera broadcast graphic close-up film of bodies, believed to be from Lynch's unit, sprawled on a concrete floor at an undisclosed location. Two of the soldiers appeared to have been shot in the forehead, one between the eyes. A smiling Iraqi moved among the bodies, displaying them for the camera.Four exhausted and shaken prisoners of war from the 507th were shown in the same news-cast giving minimal answers to questions posed by Iraqi captors.Lynch arrived at Saddam Hussein hospital in a military ambulance that afternoon. Her condition was grave. As well as her multiple fractures, her extremities were cold, her blood pressure down and her heart rate accelerated. She was unconscious and in shock.The hospital was operating but stressed to its limits. Only a dozen doctors from a staff of 60 came to work; the nursing staff was skeletal, as the roads were too dangerous to travel. The electricity was sporadic, and the hospital was receiving more than 200 casualties a day. One young intern said he was reduced to mopping bloody floors himself.After several days of treatment, Lynch's condition improved. But she was in pain and given powerful drugs. She ate, sporadically, asking for juice and crackers. The staff said she was offered Iraqi hospital food but refused. "She wanted to see things opened in front of her, then she would eat," said Furat Hussein, one of her nurses.Her mental state varied from hour to hour."She would joke with us sometimes, and sometimes she would weep," Hussein said.One of the two primary care physicians, Anmar Uday, said: "She didn't want to be left alone and she didn't want strangers to care for her. One time, she asked me: 'Why are you standing in front of me? Are you going to hurt me?' We said: 'No, we're here to help you'." "Crying all the time," recalled Khalida Shnan, a nurse who wept herself when describing how she tried to comfort Lynch by singing to her at night and rubbing talc on her shoulders.Orthopedic surgeon Mahdi Khafaji said he knew that sooner or later US troops would come for Lynch, and "we wanted to show the Americans that we are human beings".Khafaji said treating Lynch well was in their self-interest: "She was more important at that moment than Saddam Hussein." He added: "We did our best. Believe me, she was the only orthopedic surgery I performed." Khafaji suggested that, as he worked on Lynch, ordinary Iraqis went without treatment, and some may have died.But Khafaji said that, without a doubt, the Iraqi leadership was also employing Lynch as a human shield. The hospital was overrun with senior Iraqi officials, who were living and working out of the basement, the clinics and the doctors' residence halls and offices. The staff said 50 to 100 Iraqi combatants were in or around the hospital at any one time - though the number shrank day by day as deserters fled at night and the Americans closed in. The head of the municipal government, Younis Mohammad Thareb, was there, as was senior Baath Party officer Adel Abdallah Doori. There were military and special security officers also, as well as Iraqi militia and members of Saddam's fedayeen.Harith Hassona, a young resident physician who helped care for Lynch, said someone in civilian clothing who was a low-ranking employee of one of the Iraqi intelligence services, stood guard outside Lynch's door. Hassona and other hospital staff said they kept a close eye on Lynch; they feared that Iraqi officials might try to move her, or harass or interrogate her. "But you have to understand that these guys knew the Americans were coming, and towards the end, they were most worried about saving themselves," Hassona said.Nevertheless, there was an atmosphere of fear. "When she woke up once, she was saying she was scared and wanted someone to stay with her," Hassona recalled. "She said, 'I'm afraid of Saddam Hussein', and I said, 'Shhhh. Don't say that name. You must keep quiet'." Khafaji said Lynch's wounds made him suspicious. The fractures were on both sides of her body, for example."If they all came from a car accident, there was no glass in her wounds, no lacerations or deep bruises." US military sources believe most if not all the fractures could have been caused by extreme compression during her vehicle accident. Khafaji said "maybe a car accident, or maybe they broke her bones with rifle butts or by stomping on her legs. I don't know. They know and Jessica knows. I can only guess." US military and intelligence agencies would learn from several Iraqis in Nasiriyah that a 507th soldier was held captive at Saddam Hussein Hospital.One of those Iraqis was Mohammed Odeh Rehaief, a 32-year-old lawyer who told US authorities he learned about Lynch on March 27, when he went there to see his wife, Iman, a nurse in the kidney unit."In the hospital corridors, I observed a large number of fedayeen Saddam," Rehaief said in a statement. "I knew they were fedayeen because they were wearing their traditional black ninja-style uniforms that covered everything but their eyes." Rehaief said a doctor friend told him about Lynch. He peered through a glass panel into her room, he said, and "saw a large man in black looming over a bed that contained a small bandaged woman with blonde hair".There were epaulets on the man's shirt, indicating he was a fedayeen officer, Rahaief said. "He appeared to be questioning the woman through a translator. Then I saw him slap her - first with the palm of his hand, then with the back of his hand." When the fedayeen officer left, Rehaief said, he crept into Lynch's room and told her he would help her. "Don't worry," he said. He then walked east across Nasiriyah where he encountered a group of marines and told them about Lynch.The marines, who corroborated Rehaief's story that he assisted them, sent him back to the hospital several times to map out access to the site and the route there and to count the number of Iraqi troops inside.The staff of the civilian hospital believe Rehaief did tell the marines about Lynch, but some nurses and doctors disputed other parts of his story.The head nurse said there was no nurse named Iman employed by the facility, or any nurse married to a lawyer.Hassona said: "Never happened." Men in black slapping Lynch? "That's some Hollywood crap you'd tell the Americans." After the rescue, Rehaief and his wife were transported by US forces to a military camp in Kuwait. Rahaief, along with his wife and daughter, was granted political asylum in the US. He is living in Northern Virginia, working on a book for HarperCollins and with NBC for a television movie on the rescue.Rahaief and members of Lynch's family have not sought each other out.Task Force 20, a covert US Special Operations unit, worked on only the highest US priorities in Iraq: hunting for weapons of mass destruction, weapons scientists and Baath Party leaders - and rescuing Jessica Lynch.Militarily, "they knew they were going into an unknown situation", said one Special Operations officer. "They came armed for bear." Central Command was worried enough about the Iraqi military's response that it ordered a force of marines, with tanks and armoured personnel carriers, into Nasiriyah in a feint to draw attention away from the hospital.About 1am on April 1, commandos in blacked-out Blackhawk helicopters and protected by low, slow-flying AC-130 gunships swooped towards the hospital grounds. Marines fanned out as an exterior perimeter, while Army Rangers made a second protective shield just outside the hospital walls. Commandos burst into the hospital, fired explosive charges meant to disorient anyone inside and headed for Lynch's room, according to US accounts."We heard the helicopters and we decided we would go to the radiology unit," said Dr Anmar Uday. This was because the X-ray room was lined with lead.The Iraqis heard shouts of "Go! Go! Go!" and soon the commandos were upon them. They said no shots were fired in the hospital and no one resisted, that there were only doctors and staff and a few hundred patients left. "It was like a Rambo movie," Uday said. "But we were not Rambo. We just waited to be told what to do." Brigadier General Vincent K. Brooks told reporters at Central Command in Qatar: "There was not a firefight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were firefights outside of the building, getting in and out." The commandos found Lynch in a private room, atop the hospital's only bed used to ease the pain of bedsores, a special sand-filled tub. She was accompanied by a male nurse in a white jacket."Jessica Lynch, we're United States soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home," a Special Forces soldier called out, according to Air Force Major General Victor Renuart, who briefed reporters three days later."I'm an American soldier, too," she answered from her hospital bed.Troops found "ammunition, mortars, maps, a terrain model and other things that make it very clear that it was being used as a military command post", Brooks said.Saad Abdul Razaq, the hospital's assistant administrator, said he was corralled with others in a corner. "They were pointing a gun at me and I thought, 'It's all over, I'm going to die'," he said.Razaq and other staff said the last Iraqi military and civilian leaders had fled on the morning of the raid. They stripped off their green uniforms and abandoned their vehicles in the car park.The US troops recovered two American bodies from the morgue. Staff members escorted the Americans to a grave site outside the building, by a soccer field, where the bodies of seven US soldiers were buried. The hospital staff said the bodies - all members of Lynch's convoy - were put under the earth because the morgue's faltering refrigerators could not slow decomposition. Navy SEALs dug the bodies up with their hands, according to military officials.Central Command's public affairs office in Qatar geared up to make the most of the rescue. "We wanted to make sure we got whatever visuals were available," said one public affairs officer involved. The taskforce had photographed the rescue. Special Forces had already provided exclusive, opening-day video to the news media of Iraqi border posts being destroyed by night-time raids. That had been a hit, public affairs officers believed.Lieutenant-Colonel John Robinson, a Central Command public affairs officer, said: "We knew it would be the hottest thing of the day. There was not an intent to talk it down or embellish it, because we didn't need to. It was an awesome story." For the US military and the American public, Lynch's rescue came as a joyous moment in one of the darkest hours of the war, when US troops looked like they were going to be bogged down on their way to Baghdad. But the rescue had gone off without a hitch."It took on a life of its own," said one colonel who tried to answer the barrage of media queries. "The rescue turned into a Hollywood concept." After her rescue, nowhere was the joy greater than in Lynch's hometown of tiny Palestine, West Virginia, where parents Greg and Deadra Lynch had struggled to stay hopeful as days slipped by without news of their missing daughter. The family's elation was tempered when they discovered the true extent of Lynch's injuries.Lynch, now 20, remains in a private room in the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, her door guarded by a military police officer. At Walter Reed, her bones have been put back together with such a delicate and extensive network of rods and pins that it can take an hour for her to move from bed to wheelchair.To repair the fractures, a spinal injury and other injuries suffered during her ordeal, she undergoes a daily round of physical therapy. But she does so alone, during the lunch hours, when other patients are not admitted.Her father, who always wears a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt, rarely leaves her side except to sleep at night. Lynch has been in the hospital now for 67 days. Her physical problems remain severe. "She is still struggling with pain and her recovery will be slow," said family spokesman Randy Coleman.Still, Lynch is making progress. She recently walked more than 100 steps using a walker. "She works hard at physical therapy," said Walter Reed spokeswoman Beverly Chidel."She doesn't sit around and complain. She is certainly determined to get well." People who have seen her said she is psychologically traumatised, and appears somewhat dazed, though she is better now than in the early weeks. Recently she has talked on the phone to friends and sent emails from her laptop.Only Lynch is in a position to know everything that happened to her - and she may never be able to tell the story."The doctors are reasonably sure," said army spokesman Kiki Bryant, "that she does not know what happened to her." William Booth, Nasiriyah; Dana Priest and Susan Schmidt, Washington.- Washington Post.On April 4, The Age carried a Washington Post wire service story that said: "Private Jessica Lynch fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed her unit, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, according to US officials."