The Deadliest Day
SOUTHERN IRAQ -- March 2003
The recruiter said she would travel. Now, twenty months after enlistment, nineteen-year-old Private First Class Jessica Lynch steered her groaning diesel truck across a hateful landscape of grating sand and sucking mud, hauling four hundred gallons of water in the rough direction of Baghdad on a mission that just felt bad. Back home, boys with tears in their eyes had offered to marry her, to build her a brand-new house, anything, to get her to stay forever in the high, green lonesome. She told them no, told them she was going to see the world.
But the recruiter had not told any lies. He offered her a way to make some money for college, so that, when this hitch was over, she could become the kindergarten teacher she wanted to be. And he offered a way to escape the inertia of the West Virginia hills, a place so beautiful that a young person can forget, sometimes until she is very old, that she is standing still. In the process, she would serve her country, something people in her part of America still say without worrying that someone will roll his eyes.
She bought it. They all had, pretty much: all the soldiers around her, the sons and daughters of endangered blue-collar workers, immigrant families and single mothers-a United States Army borrowed from tract houses, brick ranchers and back roads. The not-quite beneficiaries of trickle-down economics, they had traded uncertain futures for dead-certain paychecks and a place in the adventure that they had heard their ancestors talk of as they'd twisted wrenches, pounded IBM Selectrics and packed lunches for the plants that closed their doors before the next generation could build a life from them.
The military never closed its doors, and service was passed down like a gold pocket watch. Sometimes it was a good safe bet, all beer gardens and G.I. Bills, and sometimes it was snake eyes, and the soldiers found themselves at a Chosin Reservoir, or a Hue, or on a wrong turn to An Nasiriyah.
As the convoy of big diesels waddled across the sand, the world she saw was flat, dull and yellow-brown, except where the water had turned the dust to reddish paste. She got excited when she saw a tree. Trees made sense. She had grown up in the woods, where solid walls of hardwood had sunk roots deep into the hillsides and kept the ground pulled tight, as it should be, to the planet. All this empty space and loose, shifting sand unsettled her mind and made her feel lost, long before she found out it was true.
She was afraid. The big trucks had been breaking down since they left the base in Kuwait, giving in to the grit that ate at the moving parts or bogging down in the mud and sand like wallowing cows. Her convoy, part of the 507th Maintenance Company deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, was at the tail end of a massive supply line that stretched from the Kuwaiti border through southern Iraq, a caravan loaded with food, fuel, water, spare parts and toilet paper. Her convoy followed the route that had already been rutted or churned up by the columns ahead, and every time a five-ton truck hit a soft place and bottomed out, the thirty-three vehicles in Jessica's convoy dropped farther behind.
Jessica just remembers a foreboding, a feeling that the convoy was staggering into enemy country without purpose or direction. Two days into the mission, the convoy had dropped so far behind that it had lost radio contact with the rest of the column. One of the far-ahead convoys carried her boyfriend, Sergeant Ruben Contreras, who had promised he would look after her. The day they left Kuwait, his column had pulled out just ahead of hers-in plain view. Now he had vanished in the distance along with the rest.
The convoy shrank every day as the heavy trucks just sank into the sand and came apart. In just two days, the thirty-three vehicles in the convoy had dwindled to eighteen, and two of them were being towed by wreckers. One day, it took five hours to lurch just nine miles. To make up that distance and time, the soldiers in the 507th slept little or not at all. They were cooks, clerks and mechanics, none of them tested in combat. They became bone weary and sleepwalked through the days.
Jessica began to wonder, if her truck broke down, would anyone even notice her at the side of the road? There was a lot to be afraid of here. But that was what she was most afraid of, whether it was reasonable or not. She was afraid of being left behind.
"I hoped that someone would see me, that someone would pick me up," she said. "Someone would stop. But you didn't know it. You didn't know."
Everyone knew what Saddam's soldiers did to women captives. In her worst nightmares, she stood alone in that desert as the trucks of her own army pulled away. In her mind, which she struggled to keep clear as the days and nights faded together, she could see the Iraqis rise up out of the sand to come and get her.
"I didn't want to be left out there. I didn't want to be left out there on my own. Even though stuff didn't look right with the convoy, it was better than being alone."
It was not a paralyzing fear, nothing that stopped her from doing her duty. It was simple dread.
Three days into their mission, as she rode with a sergeant, the transfer case in her five-ton truck "just busted"-and they were stranded. As if in her finely tailored nightmare, the big trucks did just grind past. Not all of them had working radios, only orders to push ahead, to make up the lost time. For a few bleak heartbeats, it looked as if her little-girl's fear was real. Then a Humvee swerved off the road, and the driver beckoned to her. "Get in." It was PFC Lori Ann Piestewa, her best friend. The sergeant hopped in another truck, and they rolled on.
A Hopi from Arizona who had been Jessica's roommate at Fort Bliss, Lori was recovering from an injured shoulder and had been given the choice of whether or not to deploy with her unit to Iraq. She went because Jessi did. A twenty-three-year-old mother of two, PFC Piestewa knew that her roommate was nervous, and she did not want her to face the desert, and war, on her own. "She stopped," said Jessica. "She picked me up. I love her."
Far ahead, Sergeant Ruben Contreras sat in his truck as it rolled across the sands, cloaked in the sense of invincibility that a machine gun tends to lend. He was twenty-three, hopelessly in love with a five-foot-three, hundred-pound waif from a little bitty place called Palestine, West Virginia, and sick with worry. He was supposed to eyeball the road, to sweep the horizon for signs of trouble, but his thoughts were tugged back along the ruts his unit had cut in the sand.
Where was she?
At least, if everything went according to plan, there was a big, big army between his girlfriend and danger. If everything went according to plan, a shooting fight along the assigned route was unlikely for the supply line soldiers who were purposefully skirting trouble spots, including heavily defended Nasiriyah.
"If there was any comfort, it was knowing that anything that was gonna harm her was gonna have to come through me first," he said. Rumbling over the sand, the convoys had seemed like an endless train, bound for the same place, bound together.
Jessi's convoy would be fine, he tried to convince himself. The only way it could come to real harm would be if it got lost, if the officer in charge wandered off course and into the hornet's nest of fighters loyal to Saddam who still controlled the cities and towns like Nasiriyah. Such a thing could never happen.
It was not a wrong turn, merely a missed one.
The little convoy of stragglers rolled into Nasiriyah in the early morning of March 23-right downtown.
The army, which usually does not use such colorful language in its reports, would later describe what happened next as "a torrent of fire."
When Jessica thinks about it now, she closes her eyes.
"They were blowing us up."
The Iraqis fired point-blank into the trucks with rocket-propelled grenades, shattering metal and glass, shredding tires. Soldiers leapt from them and were shot down by Iraqis with
AK-47 assault rifles who swarmed across rooftops and leaned from windows. A tank rattled up, its cannon tracking toward the trucks that growled and swerved through the dust and smoke, but the convoy was already in ruins. Some U.S. soldiers raced to cover and fought back; others clawed frantically at M16s that had jammed from the grime. Inside the Humvee with Lori, a sergeant and two other soldiers, Jessica watched bullets punch through the windshield, and she lowered her head to her knees, shut her eyes and began to pray.
It was a slow Sunday, winding down from a slow Saturday, in Palestine, West Virginia. Cody, the old dog that had never been quite the same after being shot by a hunter some years before, played dead on the front porch. Inside the white A-frame house that had been built on a foundation of hundred-year-old logs, Deadra and Greg Lynch, Jessi's parents, watched the television news. In the afternoon, CNN said a maintenance convoy had been ambushed. The network showed a video image of a truck, its doors blown away, blood running down its side. CNN said it was the 507th, and Greg told Dee not to panic, even as something like an icepick gouged at his chest. But people here have sat up late with a lot of wars, and they know that the army usually tells bad news in person. As darkness dropped on the hollow, the only visitors were friends and kin, as word spread as if by magic through the trees that one of their own was in peril.
About 11:15 p.m., a friend called from the door, "There's a trooper car comin'."
A state trooper and another man, in an army uniform, got out of the car and walked up the drive.
Like her daughter, she just wanted to hide, to make it go away.
So she just ran, as fast as she could, barefoot on the cold rocks, into the dark.
Her bangs were always perfect.
Radiant in her burgundy form-hugging gown, she was crowned Miss Congeniality at the 2000 Wirt County Fair. Even the steer she raised took a ribbon that year, a good year, her last at Wirt County High. Her sister and brother called her, with only a little meanness, the princess, and she reigned over a mountain landscape that reached all the way from Singing Hills to Reedy Creek. Here, she learned to drive on roads that twisted like a snake on fire, guiding her mom's Toyota 4¥4 pickup through places like Mingo Bottom, Lucille, Blue Goose and Folly Run, past plywood placards that offered molasses for eight dollars a quart and church marquees that promised everlasting life. In time, it all became so familiar that she barely saw it anymore, barely noticed the letters painted on century-old barns and roadside signs that begged passersby to remember rod with love, or chew mail pouch tobacco, or the puzzling pinch yorself-if you feel it, it ain't jesus. It is the place where she walked a swinging bridge to see her late great-grandpa, where she played popgun soldier in the deep woods with her baby sister and her older brother, who chewed the feet off her Barbie dolls. This is where she broke her arm on the playground slide, and broke David Huber's second-grade heart, where she crashed into the right field fence after fly balls, dove onto the hardwood gym floor after loose balls, then got up and adjusted her socks.
Her kin believe she is alive, in part, because she is from this place, because she has the right blood in her. They know that doctors in three countries brought her back from near-death, that soldiers rescued her as her wounds festered, that millions prayed. Still, even though she is small and a little prissy, she carries the blood of the mountains-the blood of people who fought and worked and loved here. Even if it is not a thing that anyone can prove, it makes people glad to believe it. If that is a bad thing, then what are legends for ?
Her family has lived here for going on two centuries now, farming the bottomland and raising cattle and horses, or working factory jobs in the small industrial cities that dot the mountains just east of the Ohio River. Like most people here, her people do not see themselves as Southern or Northern, just By God West Virginian-in a state so conflicted during the Civil War that sometimes nothing more than a wooden fence divided sympathies, and brothers really did kill brothers. It is still a land of feuds, where people wait a month, or a lifetime, to settle a grudge over a stolen can of gasoline or a wounded dog.
The passing decades stitched power lines across the ridges and laid asphalt roads through the bottomland, where the acres are dotted with white farmhouses, fat cows and round hay bales. Every hollow seems to have a little wooden house built snug against walls of rock and trees. But there are still long stretches here where the thin roads seem merely temporary, a playground for the sleek does that bound light as air from ditch to ditch and the arrogant beavers and fat groundhogs that waddle across the blacktop like they own it, then crash off into the weeds with the grace of bowling balls.
At night, the trees and the up-and-down landscape drape black curtains over the hollows and make the houses seem even more isolated than they are. After supper the men stand on the porches with cups of coffee in their hands and joke about haunts and noises in the dark, and it is easy to imagine that the creak of pine limbs in the wind is really the squeak of saddle leather from some long-dead but restless rebel patrol.
Here, they never stopped praying in schools, and eleven-year-old boys who feel the call stand up in front of congregations in the white clapboard churches and order them to drop down hard on wall-to-wall carpet and be saved. People still fast here-as sacrifice, as proof of faith-when a friend or relative is sick or in trouble, and women who go to the hospital for surgery come home to find tables crowded with covered dishes and their laundry washed, pressed and stacked. There is no such thing as babysitting, but people offer to "keep your kids." Almost every driveway has a pickup, and every toolshed has a chain saw. Without a chain saw, the ice storms-which come almost every year-would maroon the little houses. Men cut for days at a maze of slick, glittering toppled trees to clear a driveway or a mile of road. Snow they can handle, but they hate the ice.
Continued...From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from I Am a Soldier, Too by Rick Bragg. Copyright © 2003 by Rick Bragg. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.