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.
In advance of the fifth anniversary of the attack on the 507th on March 23, U.S. News spoke with three members of the maintenance company who shared their reflections on being soldiers, captives, and veterans of an ongoing war.
Jessica Lynch calls her appearance before Congress one year ago "the scariest thing" she's ever done. That is a considerable statement from a former soldier and prisoner of war who suffered a broken back, crushed legs, and extensive internal injuries. "I was kind of fretting it—should I do this? But I thought it was really necessary," she says. "It's probably the best thing I've done so far—the scariest, but the best."
Despite the letters of support she received after her testimony before a House oversight committee, Lynch says that she still gets hate mail—at least a couple of notes every few months—from Americans who accuse her of making up the heroic acts attributed to her. "I was captured, but then I was OK and I didn't go down fighting. OK, so what?" she says. "It was really hard to convince people that I didn't have to do any of that. That I was injured, that I still needed comfort."
Lynch's injuries were immense. She was the only survivor among five fellow soldiers in her humvee. In excruciating pain at the Iraqi hospital, Lynch couldn't feel her legs after she regained consciousness. In the absence of any medicine including painkillers, a nurse rubbed talcum powder on her arms. "I learned to put trust in [the Iraqi hospital staff]. I kind of had to," Lynch says. "If I didn't, I felt like they could have easily said, 'Here, just take her; do what you want with her.'"
Rescued by U.S. Special Forces three weeks later and taken to a military hospital, U.S. doctors informed Lynch that she had been sexually assaulted, likely before she arrived at the Iraqi hospital. "Once the RPG [rocket-propelled grendade] hit, something caused me to black out," she says. "We think it's from breaking my back, but we're not actually sure." Lynch's doctors were not sure she would be able to conceive children, either, since she had suffered severe internal injuries, including bowel, bladder, and kidney damage in the aftermath of the attack. "We usually just say kidney, because it's less embarrassing," she says.
It is not what she was counting on when she enlisted in the Army with her brother before the 9/11 attacks. "We had a recruiter come out and talk to us at the house, and we liked everything he was saying," she says. "A war situation didn't cross my mind. I was overloaded with the idea that I can travel"—Lynch dreamed of being stationed in Hawaii—"and they can pay for college, the positive side of things." She and her brother made a decision. "We said, 'Let's join together,' and we got our cousin to go with us."
Lynch's brother, Greg, was deployed to Iraq after she returned home, and in the months that followed, she was glued to the television. Now he is back, and she doesn't watch coverage of the war. "Honestly, it's hard; it's depressing," she says. "You hope for the best, but five years later, did we do the right thing or not?" she asks. "But we can't all just give up. Even if you disagree, the fact is that we still have soldiers over there."
Lynch saw a psychologist immediately after returning from Iraq but has had no counseling since. "I put it all in perspective, and I've learned to deal with it. I'm just happy I survived," she says. "I still have nightmares, a fear of being alone, and all of that stuff. But when I feel myself getting depressed, I distract myself"—usually by baking. "Anything chocolate and sweet. I love to mess around with stuff like that."
In the meantime, she continues to travel to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., three times a year for surgeries. She struggles with the aftereffects of a broken back and nerve damage, which makes it tough for her to stand for long periods of time, and shattered legs, for which she wears braces. There is a possibility that a toe may need to be amputated, as the brace irritates a wound that just won't heal.
Five years ago, the military's filming of her rescue prompted charges that Lynch was being used for a patriotic photo op. Lynch, for her part, says she is glad they filmed the rescue. "I was able to go back and look at it and say, 'Oh, my gosh,' " she says, recalling that at the time she was unconvinced that her rescuers were truly American. "I had no idea if it was the U.S. mili-tary or Iraqi insurgents dressed like us," she says. "I was wondering, 'Is this a tactic to get me out of the hospital and take me somewhere and kill me?' I was so, so scared deep inside."
Despite doctors' earlier concerns, Lynch, 24, is now a parent, with fiancé Wes Robinson, to a 14-month-old daughter, named Dakota Ann in honor of her best friend, Lori Ann Piestewa, who died in captivity after the attack on the 507th. Lynch plans to teach kindergarten after she gets her degree from a local college in Parkersburg, W.Va., where she is in her junior year of classes. "I love that age," she says. "It's exciting for me, and it's what I've wanted to do my whole life."
As the details and facts of the 507th capture began to emerge, Patrick Miller's role in the immediate aftermath of the attack garnered relatively little attention. But in her congressional testimony nearly one year ago, Jessica Lynch singled out Miller as one of the soldiers whose real heroics that day were "legendary," one "who actually did fight until the very end."
As his truck doubled back through town and was disabled by gunfire, then Private Miller ran beyond the crash site. Miller says that it was not his intention to get in a firefight. He simply wanted to see if he could get a stalled truck started again and in doing so, get some of his fellow soldiers out of town. But he saw an Iraqi setting up a mortar pit on the back side of a truck. "I thought, 'Holy s - - -,' " he says. "So I shot, and he fell down."
With no one else in the mortar pit, Miller pivoted, and as he turned, he found himself "looking straight at an rpg." He hit the ground behind a mound of earth as it exploded. "There was dirt everywhere," he says. After checking to see if he still had arms and legs, Miller looked back toward the mortar area. "And there's another guy trying to load the tube, and I shot him," he says. "And I did that probably six more times after that." He turned around and fired more shots at a man to his rear. "And he didn't get up." When he turned around to look at the mortar pit again, there were "30 or 40 guys standing on the road."
At that point, Miller began disassembling his weapon. "I popped one pin out of the assembly," he says, and threw the parts in every direction "so they wouldn't use it against us."
As soon as he finished doing that, he was gang-tackled.
There was an argument then, he says, about who exactly was going to take him. They removed his Kevlar body armor and, in doing so, found in his helmet a piece of paper with numbers written on it. They were military radio frequencies, but "I told them they were prices for power steering pumps." That bit of fast thinking came to him, he says, as a result of the errands he was running to get his car fixed just before he went to war. "I don't know what the hell they were thinking, but they threw [that piece of paper] in the fire."
They found something else, too, in the pouch of Miller's flak vest—a can of chewing tobacco. "I told them it was 'man candy.' " Miller then stuck a hunk in the back of his mouth. His Iraqi captors began eating it and promptly threw up. "I wanted to laugh," he says. "But I didn't think it would be a good idea."
Miller, 28, says that as a captive, he was not roughed up, but some of the guards asked questions. "There was one who asked me why I came to Iraq, and I told him that I was told to come. He was like, 'Why didn't you just tell them no?' I told him that if I tell them no, I go to jail. He couldn't understand that." Miller has an injury that continues to plague him, nerve damage he suffered when his arms were tied behind his back with a rubber iv tube—and an Iraqi soldier was stepping on his elbow as he lay on the floor of a truck. Miller says he believes it was an unintentional act in a crowded truck.
When he returned home, Miller considered getting out of the Army. "As a POW, they would've let me get out" with benefits. "But the way I looked at it is that I never really quit anything. Why would I let this make me quit?" There were other considerations as well, he says. "Looking at it with my family, what else am I going to do to support them?" he says. "Who else is going to pay me the kind of money I need to make?"
Miller extended his enlistment in October 2006 for family health reasons, he says. "My wife was in and out of the hospital, and I didn't know how I would pay for it if I didn't have the insurance that the Army gives us." The $10,000 re-enlistment bonus was also a draw, adds Miller, now a staff sergeant at Fort Carson, Colo. But he had to fight to stay in the Army, he says, after he got a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. "I told them I didn't want it [the medical discharge] and wanted to stay in." He prevailed.
Today, what he really wants to do, he says, is return to Iraq with his unit, which is now deployed there. But POWs are not permitted to return to the countries in which they were captured. He has asked commanding officers he knows to write him letters, recommending that he be allowed to return.
Shoshana Johnson grew up as an Army brat—her father was in the military for 20 years. So joining the Army was a natural choice after she dropped out of college following an unremarkable freshman year. When she learned that her unit would be headed to Kuwait in advance of the invasion of Iraq, she was unfazed. "I was like, 'Ah, well, I'll deploy for a little bit and earn a little extra money' " in the form of combat pay. "I figured I'd drop a couple of pounds and save some money."
Her sister, also in the military, had just returned from Kuwait, and the memory of the easy military victory of the first Gulf War was fresh in the mind of America. Johnson was an Army cook—she dreamed of being a chef one day—and as her unit began its trek across the desert toward Iraq, "we were prepared for some things but not everything," says Johnson.
Capture never entered her mind. But, she says, her worst fears about what being a POW would entail were not realized. She recalls one doctor, "an old man with two wives and 11 children, who was really nice to me." He brought her tea and proved protective, she says, once sleeping just outside her door. "I don't know if he thought somebody would come in, or something would happen to me," she says. "When people start talking to me about Islam, that's who I think of—a very nice man who took a big chance." Johnson set out to write a memoir about her experiences, but the publishers canceled the book deal last year when she didn't give them the sort of story they had in mind. "They wanted this really religious book. I'm a Catholic and my faith is important to me, but as a single mom with tattoos, I can't be writing a book telling people how to live their life." Today, she has a 7-year-old daughter and is studying to be a caterer, juggling single motherhood with classes at a local community college.
After her rescue, Johnson says, she had planned to stay in the Army. "But it was a little too much, physically and mentally." She struggled, too, with being the first African-Ameri-can woman captured as a POW. "It's not something you strive for." It has helped speaking with former Vietnam vets—and one in particular whom she met last year, a black male soldier who had been in captivity for five years. "They told him, 'You're a black man; you know that America doesn't care about you.' And he held his ground. When people talk about, 'Oh, you've endured so much,' I think of him."
She, too, had been told that America didn't care about her as an African-American POW. There was much made of the fact that Johnson, as a black soldier, received a lower disability rating than Lynch, particularly after reports surfaced that Johnson protested her disability rating. But, she says, there was a back story there: It was not Lynch's condition that caused Johnson to file a protest. "That was justifiable," she says. "She had a lot more injuries." Johnson, who took a bullet to both of her ankles during the attack on the 507th, protested because the military had initially denied her disability coverage for ptsd. The Army's assessment noted with startling bureaucratic blandness that Johnson's "time in Iraq was trying" but that her mental condition did not rise to the level of ptsd. "My mental state didn't rate," Johnson says.
Her protests led the military to instead give Johnson a temporary disability rating that she had to renew every year for three years, once flying to a military medical board hearing in Fort Lewis, Wash., at her own expense, with a pro bono lawyer. "It's something a lot of soldiers have to go through, especially the lowest private who's barely getting by," says Johnson, who was later granted permanent disability. "I tell them, don't give up, but it's so frustrating for them." Today, Johnson, 35, says she receives excellent psychiatric care. "The last thing the va or the military wants," she jokes, "is for Shoshana Johnson to go crazy." She looks forward to the time each summer that she and members of her unit reunite at a POW center in Florida for medical tests—the military tracks the health of its POWs over the years to gauge the effects of captivity—and just as important, she says, meet their new spouses and significant others. For her part, Johnson says, she loves spending time with her daughter at their home in El Paso, Texas, and she is still looking for love. "There aren't many dudes," she says, "that can handle dating the POW."