A Wrong Turn in the Desert

By Osha Gray Davidson

Rolling Stone, 27 May 2004                                                        Page 1  (page 2 - page 3)

 


When Jessica Lynch’s convoy veered off course in Iraq, Private Lori Piestewa became the first Native American woman to die in combat on foreign soil. So why has the Hopi soldier been all but forgotten?

Nasiriyah, Iraq. 23 March 2003: 0600 hours

An hour before the ambush, Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa knew something was wrong. It was just before dawn, only three days into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and her unit’s slow-moving convoy was approaching a bridge over the Euphrates River. That’s when Piestewa saw it: the heavily fortified town of Nasiriyah, rising out of the sands like a mirage. She stared in disbelief through the dusty windshield of the Humvee she was driving. A city? Shouldn’t they be in the desert?

At the far end of the bridge, Piestewa spotted an Iraqi military checkpoint. She braced for the worst. But as the column lumbered by, the Iraqi soldiers inside waved, beckoning the Americans deeper into the city.

Piestewa turned to her best friend, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who was riding in back of the Humvee. They were both thinking the same thing: We’re not supposed to be here.

It was a small error, but a fatal one. The 507th Army Maintenance Company – a support unit of clerks, repairmen and cooks – had taken a wrong turn in the desert, stumbling into Nasiriyah by mistake. Without warning, the company suddenly found itself surrounded, an easy target for Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen paramilitary forces armed with AK-47s, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The ensuing attack proved to be the Army’s bloodiest day of the ground war – and the first hint of the deadly quagmire that Iraq would soon become. Eleven American soldiers were killed and nine were wounded when the 507th came under what the military later described as a "torrent of fire" in Nasiriyah.

The attack made Jessica Lynch famous. U.S. Special Forces later plucked her from an Iraqi hospital and rushed her to safety, and the media seized on the daring rescue to create a tale of American heroism and valor. But the real story of what happened in Nasiriyah that day – and the clear warning it offered of things to come – involves a different soldier, one who gave her life to protect her friends. Lori Piestewa, born and raised a Hopi on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, became the first American woman to die in the war, and the first Native American woman ever to die in combat on foreign soil. Only twenty-three years old, Piestewa saw herself as a Hopi warrior, part of a centuries-old tradition developed by a people who once resisted an invasion and occupation by the U.S. military – much as the Iraqis are today. She went to war, but she believed above all in peace, in doing no harm to others. "I’m not trying to be a hero," she told a friend just before the invasion. "I just want to get through this crap and go home."

Her fellow soldiers remember her differently. When Jessica Lynch thanked a long list of people at her triumphant homecoming in West Virginia, she devoted her final words to Piestewa, her former roommate at Fort Bliss, Texas, where the two had been stationed before the war. "Most of all," Lynch said that day, "I miss Lori."

Since the attack, Lynch has insisted again and again that she was not a hero, that she was only a survivor. Asked who was a hero that day in Nasiriyah, she doesn’t hesitate. "Lori," she says firmly. "Lori is the real hero."

Jessica Lynch with a picture of Lori. (Photograph by Ben Lowy)

The high desert country around Tuba City, Arizona, where Lori Piestewa grew up, looks a lot like southern Iraq. Vast, open stretches dominate the barren landscape, punctuated now and then by red sandstone mesas. As a child, Lori spent weekends racing her three-wheeled ATV across the sand dunes north of town. Only six inches of rain fall here each year – about the same as in Nasiriyah. When the producers of Three Kings, the George Clooney movie about the first Gulf War, were looking for a stand-in for Iraq, they decided to film in the Arizona desert.

If Lori had been born a century earlier, the United States government would have considered her an enemy. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Cavalry invaded Hopi lands and decreed that the fields now belonged to white settlers. The Hopi fought back, not with guns or arrows, but with nonviolent resistance. (The name Hopi means "Peaceful People.") In defiance of the military, Hopi farmers continued to cultivate their lands. The Army arrested nineteen Hopi leaders and sent them to Alcatraz, where some spent as long as two years in solitary.

Piestewa was raised in this Hopi tradition of nonviolence, which emphasizes helping others, starting at home, with one’s own family and clan, and extending outward to include the entire community and nation. (Her father, Terry, is Hopi; her mother is Hispanic.) As a baby, Lori had her hair washed in a Hopi ceremony and was given the name Köcha-Hon-Mana, White Bear Girl. "We Hopi were put on this earth to be peaceful," explains Terry, a short, round man with graying hair and a soft voice.

Terry Piestewa fought in Vietnam, but it’s not something he is proud of. He was drafted and didn’t want to go to prison like two of his brothers-in-law who had refused to fight in Korea. Asked about his tour of duty, he folds his arms across his chest and his eyes fill with tears.

"A lot of us that did do harm, we have that on our conscience," he says. "It’s going to stay, and there’s nothing that can take that away."

Camp Virginia, Kuwait. 20 March: 1400 hours

Sixty-four members of the 507th pulled out of camp at the tail end of a column of 600 vehicles. Piestewa was behind the wheel of a Humvee, the driver for the 507th’s senior noncommissioned officer,  First Sgt. Robert Dowdy. They were headed to the south of Baghdad to support a Patriot-missile battalion. The goal was to take the Iraqi capital as quickly as possible. Speed wasn’t just essential to the plan. Speed was the plan. As Gen. Tommy Franks, the man in charge of the assault, liked to say, "Speed kills."

But as the vehicles raced across the open desert, the 507th lagged behind. Tires on the heavy trucks spun uselessly in the fine sand until their axles reached the ground. Mired vehicles had to be pulled out; broken trucks were repaired on the spot or towed. It was the essence of grunt work – nothing heroic, just necessary.

At one point, Lynch’s five-ton truck, hauling a "water buffalo" – a trailer filled with 400 gallons of water – broke down. She was standing in the desert, frightened and bewildered, when a Humvee rattled over.

Piestewa – known as "Pi" to her fellow soldiers – looked at her shaken friend. "Get in, roommate," she said.

Maybe watching all those Westerns with people getting scalped makes people think that’s what a warrior is," says Lori’s oldest brother, Wayland. But for Hopis, he says, being a warrior has nothing to do with hurting people. "My sister is a warrior because she did the right thing, the honorable thing: going to Iraq when she didn’t have to, because she felt it was the ethical and moral thing to do. That’s what being a warrior is about: doing what’s right, even when it’s difficult and means sacrifice."

Lori never shied away from doing what was difficult. "She was really strong-willed," says her brother Adam. "We were always telling her not to do things, and she’d just go ahead and do them." The boys of Tuba City learned that if they were going to get in White Bear Girl’s face, they’d better be prepared to fight. Lori was small for her age – she would top out at five foot three – but even the bigger boys were intimidated by her. "She never backed down," says Adam. "She was never afraid to take on anybody."

Most of the time, though, Lori used those same traits in the Hopi way: to help whatever group she was part of. When she was eight years old, she played shortstop for the local Little League team. On the day before a championship game, the coach was hitting practice grounders when one ricocheted off the iron-hard dirt and struck Lori full in the face, breaking her nose. Despite two blackened eyes that made her look like a panda, she insisted on playing the next day. The team was counting on her, she argued. Her family gave in. With Lori at shortstop, the team won the championship.

"She couldn’t not play," says Adam. This wasn’t about choice – it was about duty.

 

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