When POW Jessica Lynch heard helicopters and gunfire from her hospital bed on the night of April 1, her first reaction wasn't happiness — but fear.
She could hear soldiers asking where, "'Where's P-F-C Jessica Lynch?'" But she couldn't tell if they were U.S. or Iraqi soldiers.
"I thought, 'Oh, you know, here it comes, they're about to kill me. It's, you know, about to happen,' " Lynch told Diane Sawyer in her first interview since her nine-day captivity in Iraq.
Lynch's dramatic rescue would be touted as one of America's most heroic episodes in the Iraq war, but Lynch says she was actually expecting the worst until she actually saw the soldiers.
"The guys come in and I was, like, OK, they don't look Iraqi," she told Sawyer. "And I actually had to, you know, see that it said U.S. Army on their uniforms."
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."
Clarifications and Disclosures
In the interview, Lynch also discloses some of the details recounted in her upcoming book — including a sexual assault she suffered during her captivity in Iraq.
A medical report indicates the private was sexually assaulted at the hospital, but Lynch says she has no recollection of the attack. "Even just the thinking about that, that's too painful," she said.
She also clears up conflicting stories about her actions during the March 23 ambush in which she 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 told Sawyer in the interview airing tonight.
"I did not shoot, not a round, nothing," she said. "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 added. "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.
A Soldier, But Not a Hero
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 told 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."
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 says 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."
The Truth About the Rescue
Lynch says it wasn't until the U.S. soldiers who had come to rescue her loaded her into a U.S. helicopter 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 Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, the Iraqi lawyer who says he tipped off U.S. soldiers about Lynch's whereabouts, and is now the focus of a TV movie made without her participation. But if he did help her, Lynch 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 skirts 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 story, I am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, 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."