— Former POW Jessica Lynch, whose dramatic rescue offered Americans a glimmer of hope at one of the low points of the Iraq war, discloses in her upcoming biography that she suffered a brutal sexual assault during her captivity in Iraq.
While a medical report indicates that Lynch had been sexually assaulted, Lynch says she has no recollection of the attack. "Even just the thinking about that, that's too painful," she tells Diane Sawyer in her first interview since her nine-day captivity in Iraq.
I'm No Hero
In the interview, Lynch also clears up conflicting stories about her actions during the March 23 ambush in which Lynch was taken prisoner. Initial reports portrayed the Army supply clerk, then 19, as a hero who was wounded by Iraqi gunfire but kept firing until her ammunition ran out, shooting several Iraqis.
But Lynch confirms that was not the case. She tells Sawyer she was just a soldier in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose gun jammed during the chaos. "I'm not about to take credit for something I didn't do," she tells Sawyer in the interview, airing Tuesday, Nov. 11.
"I did not shoot, not a round, nothing," she tells Sawyer. "When we were told to lock and load, that's when my weapon jammed … I did not shoot a single round … I went down praying to my knees. And that's the last I remember."
Lynch, now 20, says she feels hurt to have received praise she says her colleagues deserved. "It hurt in a way that people would make up stories that they had no truth about. They did not know whether I did that or not. Only I would have been able to know that, because the other four people on my vehicle aren't here to tell that story. So I would have been the only one able to say, 'Yeah, I went down shooting.' But I didn't. I did not."
"I don't look at myself as a hero," she adds. "My heroes are Lori [Pfc. Lori Piestewa], the soldiers that are over there, the soldiers that were in that car beside me, the ones that came and rescued me." Piestewa was one of the 11 members of Lynch's unit, the 507th Maintenance, who were killed in the ambush near the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriyah.
Lynch, who spent nearly four months in a military hospital in Washington, D.C., after her ordeal, says she still feels like a soldier — and something else. "I'm a survivor, for all the things that I've been through," she tells Sawyer.
Lynch described the moments of the ambush as terror and confusion. "Once it started, it was just chaos," she said, adding, "You could hear them [bullets] bouncing off our vehicle. You could hear people screaming. It was scary, so scary."
She said her convoy was surrounded by Iraqi attackers: "They were coming from everywhere. We had vehicles getting stuck, vehicles running out of gas … our weapons were jamming."
Her unit was ambushed after missing a turn and becoming separated from the convoy they were traveling in. "We weren't thinking quickly. We were so tired, we were hungry … it was just a mistake," Lynch said.
In the chaos of the ambush, Lynch says, she discovered that her gun was jammed and she was unable to defend herself. She was never able to fire her weapon.
She says it may have been Piestewa who fought fiercely and went down firing. "That may have been her. But that wasn't me, and I'm not taking credit for it," Lynch said.
Lynch says she remembers Piestewa protecting her: "She was there for me … She had my back the whole time."
Fearing the Worst
Lynch was held in an Iraqi hospital for nine days after the ambush, and she describes the fear she felt during her captivity as well as the excruciating pain from her injuries. "I couldn't move … It was so horrible, like I've never felt that much pain in my whole entire life."
She said she was never mistreated at the hospital, but she still feared for her life. "I kept repeating, 'Please don't hurt me, please don't hurt me,' " she said.
Lynch said the Iraqi medical staff tried to reassure her, but she was skeptical. She said she refused the food they offered her, fearing that it could be poisoned or unsanitary. Lynch said no one among the staff at the Iraqi hospital was abusive to her, "no one beat me, no one slapped me, no one, nothing … I mean, I actually had one nurse, that she would sing to me."
At one point, Lynch said, she overheard Iraqi doctors planning to amputate her leg. "I started just crying and screaming and just doing everything that I could … And they just backed off. They took me back up to my room and left me there."
Lynch says that when U.S. special forces burst into the hospital in search of her, her first reaction was panic. "I heard the Americans coming in, 'Get down, get down,' you know. And that's when I started to really panic … that's when I really, I felt like getting down on the ground and crawling under that bed because I didn't know what was about to happen," she said.
She says she heard the U.S. soldiers ask about her, speaking in English, but she was still terrified. "I thought, 'Here it comes.They're about to kill me … It's about to happen.' "
It wasn't until the soldiers spoke to her that she began to feel hope. Lynch said the soldiers told her, "We're American soldiers. We're here to take you home."
She went on: "And I was like, 'Yeah, I'm an American soldier too' … It was obviously a dumb thing to say — 'I'm an American soldier, too' — but it was the first thing that came out of my mind."
One soldier, Lynch said, ripped an American flag off his suit and handed it to her. "I would not let go of his hand. I clenched to his hand because I was not going to let him leave me here. He was going to take me out."
It wasn't until she was being evacuated in a U.S. helicopter, Lynch says, that she felt, "My God, this is real. I'm going home."
The U.S. military filmed the rescue, and U.S. television networks aired the dramatic green night-vision footage repeatedly as they reported how the special forces team, acting on a tip from a brave Iraqi lawyer, engaged in firefights on their way into and out of the hospital.
"… Anyone, you know, in that kind of situation would obviously go in with force, not knowing who was on the other side of the door," Lynch said.
It later emerged that there were no firefights at the hospital. The hospital staff said there were no Iraqi soldiers there, and questioned the need for the Americans to use force. Lynch told Sawyer she does not remember seeing the lawyer, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, who is the focus of a TV movie that is being made without her participation. But if he did help her, she said, she is grateful.
Asked whether the military's portrayal of the rescue bothers her, Lynch said, "Yeah, it does. It does that they used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff. I mean, yeah, it's wrong … I don't know what they had … or why they filmed it."
But Lynch was unequivocal in her gratitude to the soldiers who rescued her. "All I know was that I was in that hospital hurting … I wanted out of there. It didn't matter to me if they would have came in shirts and blank guns. It wouldn't have mattered to me. I wanted out of there."
"They're the ones that came in to rescue me. Those are my heroes … I'm so thankful that they did what they did. They risked their lives. They didn't know, you know, who was in there."
Lynch told Sawyer she wrote her upcoming biography with journalist Rick Bragg, not for money, but "to let everyone know my side of the story … the soldiers who were beside me in that war and the soldiers that are still over there."