Jessica Lynch was 19 when the world first saw her — a broken, blond soldier caught on combat video in Iraq, her face wearing something between a grimace and a grin.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jessica Lynch was 19 when the world first saw her — a broken, blond soldier caught on combat video in Iraq, her face wearing something between a grimace and a grin.
The Army supply clerk was being carried on a stretcher after nine days as a prisoner of war. She and five others had been captured after the 507th Maintenance Company took a wrong turn and came under attack in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Eleven soldiers were killed.
Lynch had joined the Army at 18 to earn money for college and become a schoolteacher. Now 28, she will complete that mission Friday.
She will spend Thursday finishing her training as a student teacher at the same elementary school she attended in sparsely populated Wirt County. Then, on badly damaged legs and a right foot that still pains her, she will walk across a stage Friday night and receive her education degree from West Virginia University at Parkersburg.
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“It’s tough to walk, but I look at it as, ‘At least I’m walking,’ ” she said. “At least I have my legs. They may not work. I have no feeling in the left one. But it’s attached, at least. … At least I’m alive.”
Lynch and longtime boyfriend Wes Robinson are parents to 5-year-old Dakota, whose name honors a fallen American Indian friend. Marriage, she says, is in the plan, but there’s no rush.
When she was rescued, the U.S. government used footage of Lynch to spin a tale that exaggerated the truth. To make her seem more heroic and rally public support for the war, the military claimed she had gone down firing — when, in fact, her rifle had jammed. She wrote a book, “I Am A Soldier, Too,” with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, and repeatedly has worked to set the record straight.
“The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes,” she told Congress in 2007, “and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies.”
The lies cost her. She received hate mail. Some said she’d done nothing to deserve the attention or the title of hero. She once told Glamour magazine she felt like “the most hated person in America.”
A hateful missive still arrives occasionally, after a high-profile appearance.
“They say things like, ‘Who do you think you are? That was so eight years ago,’ ” Lynch said. “I just don’t respond. It just doesn’t bother me anymore. It used to, because I couldn’t understand why people were hating me. I was just a soldier like the 100,000 others over there.”
Literally and figuratively, she said, she now has a stronger backbone. “I just let things roll off.”
Lynch said she will take a semester off to travel and spend time with Dakota before the child starts school. She hopes to start work soon on a master’s degree in communications.
She also will continue her speaking engagements with children and veterans groups. Without fail, the most common question at those events is whether she was shot.
“I can’t answer because I don’t even know myself,” she said. “There’s never been actual proof.”
The crash of her Humvee is believed to have caused her injuries, which also included spinal fractures, nerve damage and a shattered right arm.
If her fame has one benefit, Lynch said, it’s the reminder that people still think about U.S. troops, at home and overseas.
“And that’s good,” she said, “because they still need our prayers just like they did nine or 10 years ago.”