In the popular Bertolt Brecht play that bears its lead character's name, Galileo recants his beliefs under threat of Vatican torture. That prompts a compatriot to note, "Unhappy is a land that breeds no heroes." No, Galileo replies: Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.
Five years ago, America needed heroes. Just three days into a polarizing war with Iraq, the 507th Maintenance Company, the last in a column of 600 vehicles making its way toward Baghdad, got mired in sand with jammed weapons. Over a period of 60 to 70 hours with little rest and limited communications, the company, composed in part of welders, mechanics, and cooks, was isolated and stretched to its limit. Then it got lost. As the 507th soldiers, members of a Patriot missile support group, drove through the city of Nasiriyah—the result of a navigational error—Iraqi residents appeared more stunned than hostile. When the unit made a U-turn and passed through the town again in an effort to rejoin its convoy, it ran headlong into what the U.S. Army's official report of the day describes as a "torrent of fire." Of the 33 soldiers from the 507th who were involved in the attack, 11 were killed, nine were wounded, and seven were taken captive.
The Army's official report called the event a tragedy, one that spurred early criticism among military officials that the war plan had considerably underestimated troop requirements, leaving supply lines overextended and vulnerable to attack. It was the first indication that this would not be a telegenic, first Gulf War kind of fight.
From this backdrop emerged Pvt. Jessica Lynch. She was tiny and blond, and military officials did not dispute the notion that she went down fighting. "Reports are that she fired until she had no more ammunition," then Capt. Frank Thorp, a senior military spokesman in the Persian Gulf, said at the time. America was looking for a hero, the media were anxious to supply one, and in the fog of war, the military was loath to disabuse the nation of its admiration for a soldier who had indisputably been through so much. "There was never, ever any intentional deception involving Lynch," says Thorp, now a rear admiral. But that did not dampen the nation's desire for a hero. "That's America," he adds. "We want heroes, in baseball, in politics, in our day-to-day life."
Lynch herself understood that point. "I have repeatedly said when asked that if the stories about me helped inspire our troops and rally a nation, then perhaps there was some good," she said in testimony last year before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the friendly-fire death of former football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and whether the military hyped battlefield heroics. But, she added, "I'm still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were legendary." Lynch has since struggled with the answers to that question. "They wanted to make people think that maybe this war was a good thing," she says. "Instead, people were getting killed, and it was going downhill fast. They wanted a hero."
The point is not that they were heroes that day, say the soldiers who were there—the point is that heroism abounds in each soldier who packs up and goes to war. And in fact, many from the 507th reject the hero label. "It's nice that people remember and stuff, but the way I look at it was I was just doing my job as a soldier," says Patrick Miller, whom Lynch cited for bravery in her testimony. "If other people look at me as a hero, I'm not going to take it away from them. But I'm not going to be that guy that lives on that."
Another unit member, Shoshana Johnson, who became the first female African-American POW, now says: "I think we tossed around the hero word a little too much. I got shot and caught, and that's it." Today, she adds, "there are loads of soldiers out there who deserve all the props, and they don't get enough."
The Army has since taken additional steps to better prepare support-company soldiers heading to war. They now get more live-fire combat training, become more familiar with their rifles, and learn how to link up with recovery forces should they find themselves isolated and in harm's way. They also learn better navigation skills. What's more, the military has also created a "virtual staff ride"—a computer re-creation—of the 507th incident so that midcareer officers can review the case and learn from its mistakes.