Ex-POW Jessica Lynch Says Returning Soldiers True Heroes

PHOTO: Jessica Lynch, who shot to fame as a POW during the Iraq war in 2003, is featured in the South Charleston, W.Va. Christmas Parade.PlayBob Bird/AP Photo
WATCH Iraq War Ends: Jessica Lynch Revisited

Former POW Jessica Lynch -- who graduates from college tonight with a degree in elementary education -- says the soldiers who are leaving Iraq this month are the nation's true heroes.

"Like the rest of the country, I'm not sure what's going to happen now that we're leaving and pulling out of the country," Lynch told ABC News. But at the same time, at this time of year, she adds, "[I'm] so thankful that these soldiers get to come home and spend it with their families, their friends and loved ones."

"I do look at them as if they are heroes, but I don't look at myself that way," Lynch said, referring to her role as a POW rescued from a hospital in Iraq by American forces in 2003.

Lynch was only 18 when she joined the Army from the tiny town of Palestine, W.V., and only 19 when the truck she was driving came under attack after it took a wrong turn into enemy territory in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Eleven soldiers died in the ambush, including Lynch's friend Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23. Lynch suffered severe injuries, believed to have occurred when the Humvee crashed, and still has damaged legs and a painful foot.

She became America's darling after her rescue when the U.S. government portrayed her as a fearless heroine who had gone down fighting. In fact, as she told ABC's Diane Sawyer in a searing 2003 interview, her weapon jammed and "I did not shoot ... not a round."

"Did you go down like somebody said, Rambo?" Sawyer asked.

"No. No. I went down, praying to my knees. And then, that's the last I remember," Lynch replied.

Now, Lynch says, "I was one of 100,000 soldiers over there just doing my job." Her tributes go to "the ones that didn't make it," like Piestewa.

Lynch's daughter, Dakota Ann, nearly 5, who will be in the audience tonight when her mom graduates from West Virginia University in Parkersburg, is named after Lynch's fallen comrade. Dakota, Lynch says, means "friend" in the Hopi language -- a tribute to Piestewa's Native American heritage. "I felt like I needed something to…remind me how important Lori was," she said.

Lynch, now 28, has no regrets about coming clean about her actions when she was captured. "For myself and my family, there was no way I would be able to live with myself knowing that I was going on with what they were reporting. So, I just thought it was really important to set the record straight. "

Since then, she has refused to hide away -- making public appearances to speak to veteran's groups and kids and raising money for her charity, Jessi's Pals. "I love speaking," she says.

She has wanted to be a teacher since she was inspired by her kindergarten teacher as a little girl. So she's thrilled that she is able to live out her dream. "I'm on top of the world right now, it's amazing."

She lives in her home state with Dakota Ann's dad, Wes Robinson. Dakota Ann is "the light of my life," she said. "When I'm having a bad day or just stressed out…I can just look at her and you know…that's all it takes, is just hearing her laugh."

Lynch is still in regular touch with another of the captured POWs, cook Shoshana Johnson, 38, of El Paso, Texas.

Johnson, who was shot in both legs in the attack, still has pain, but she told ABC: "Considering that other soldiers got missing limbs, I'm doing OK. They still work, I can still stand on them."

The country's first black female POW, she has never been in the limelight to the degree Lynch has been. "I still got to pay the mortgage, make the car payment. I'm not Kim Kardashian," she says. "Every once in a while I do get a speaking engagement and that affords me certain luxuries for my daughter," Jenelle, 12.

Johnson completed studies in culinary arts in May and now is studying health science with a culinary concentration at the University of Texas at El Paso. Johnson battles depression and PTSD and says, "I hope to be 'normal,' but it's a work in progress. Just because we leave Iraq physically, some of us are still mentally there."

She is in contact with all the former POWs and also keeps in close touch with Melissa Coleman, who spent 33 days in captivity during the Gulf War in 1991.

"There are very few people who understand what it was like for me. My fellow POWs are those individuals. I can tell them anything and they understand," Johnson said. "My connection to them keeps me more grounded."