By Osha Gray Davidson
Rolling Stone, 27 May 2004 Page 2 (page 1 - page 3)
Southeastern Iraq. 21 March: 2200 hours
By nightfall, the 507th had fragmented into two groups. The lighter and faster-moving vehicles led by Capt. Troy King, the commanding officer, continued on to the next position – code-named Lizard. The heavy trucks, some now in tow, were hours behind. Piestewa’s Humvee was designed for this terrain. But Dowdy was responsible for making sure the stragglers got to Lizard safely, so their Humvee didn’t reach the position until late afternoon.
Only King and his driver were waiting for them. The main convoy, and the rest of the 507th, had left two hours earlier. The supply company was now at half-strength, deep in hostile territory, without the protection of the forward battalion.
King organized a miniconvoy, with his vehicle in the lead and Piestewa driving Dowdy near the rear. Just after sunset, thirty-three soldiers in sixteen vehicles set off for Highway 8. Piestewa was exhausted. They all were. None of them had slept in thirty-six hours, time they had spent doing grueling physical labor. Trying to catch up to the main convoy, King attempted a shortcut across the desert. It got bad fast. After a few hundred yards, a truck would bog down in sand. They’d pull the vehicle out, repair it and start up again – until another truck got stuck and the process began all over again. They reached Highway 8 at 12:30 a.m., March 23rd. It had taken five hours to travel nine miles.
But now they were on a highway, code-named Route Blue, and made good time. In a half-hour they reached the intersection with Route Jackson, their intended route. For reasons still not fully understood, King mistakenly believed he was supposed to continue on Route Blue. The military had established a checkpoint at the intersection to prevent any mistakes. But the main convoy had passed by hours before and the checkpoint was all but deserted. Instead of turning left on Route Jackson, King led the 507th north on Route Blue – directly toward the city of Nasiriyah.
Lori joined just about every sports team there was in Tuba City – which says as much about the lack of things to do in Tuba City as it does about her love of athletics. The town’s unemployment rate rarely dips below twenty percent, and nearly one in four families lives in poverty – three times the national average. On cold mornings, smoke curls from the chimneys of hogans and ramshackle trailers. Broken-down cars adorn dusty yards, stray dogs with washboard ribs prowl unpaved streets, and a guy with beer breath hustles quarters outside McDonald’s at ten o’clock on Sunday morning. The closest movie theater is in Flagstaff, seventy-five miles away. Ask local kids what they think of the town, and you’re likely to get a two-word reply: "It sucks."
Like most other kids in Tuba City, Lori felt the push of a stunted economy and the pull of other places. In high school, eager for new experiences, she joined the Junior Reserve Officer Training Program. No one was surprised when she became the commander. She was no gung-ho super patriot, but she loved the physical challenges and the camaraderie. As a junior, her unit was scheduled to attend its first-ever statewide finals, taking part in a physical-fitness competition. The day before the event, Lori dislocated her shoulder in practice. Determined not to let her comrades down, she managed to do more chin-ups than any other woman, winning the women’s overall competition.
By the beginning of her senior year, Lori was looking beyond high school. Neither of her parents went to college – her mother is a secretary and her father does maintenance in the local schools – but Lori wanted that degree. She was looking at different colleges when she ran into another obstacle. She discovered she was pregnant.
There aren’t many job options on the reservation, and even fewer for girls who are poor, pregnant and seventeen. College was put on hold. Lori married her boyfriend and had two children, but the marriage fell apart. She wound up living with her parents in the small but comfortable trailer where she was raised, feeling trapped and desperate. She hated taking things for free, even from her family. So she left her kids in the care of her folks and enlisted in the Army.
For Native Americans, patriotism and military service are complex, often contentious issues. Some Indians call those who join the military "apples" – red on the outside, white on the inside. (One T-shirt popular on reservations bears an old-time photograph of four Indians, rifles at the ready, with the words, HOMELAND SECURITY: FIGHTING TERRORISM SINCE 1492.) But many American Indians still consider this their homeland and have fought to defend it; during World War II, one in eight Indians joined the military.
For Lori, the military was just another way to help others – starting with her kids and her family. "She wanted to fend for her children," says her mother, Percy. "She was going to build us a house and take care of us. I think she weighed the options that she had. We’re not rich enough to send her to college. When you have obstacles in your way, you take what life offers."
|Lori's children, Carla and Brandon, honor their mother on the anniversary of her death. (Roy Dabner/AP)|
If there was one thing Lori knew, it was how to deal with obstacles. In April 2001, with just two weeks to go in basic training, she broke her foot during a training exercise. She kept the injury quiet. "She didn’t want to get held back," her dad recalls. Lori simply bandaged her foot and continued the punishing training as if nothing were wrong. After her graduation ceremony, Lori couldn’t wait to remove her shoe. Even her parents, long accustomed to her injuries, winced when they saw her grotesquely swollen and bruised foot.
Outskirts of Nasiriyah. 23 March: 0600 hours
Dawn has special significance for the Hopis, who consider the sun the creator. Piestewa saw it rising out of the desert as she followed the convoy off Route Blue and onto a smaller road. King – now without sleep for fifty hours – had missed a left turn that took Route Blue just west of the city. The smaller road, flanked by partially drained marshes, plunged into the eastern section of Nasiriyah. The town was just waking up. Men with AKs slung over their shoulder gawked at the Americans; pickups mounted with large-caliber machine guns drove slowly by. The potential for violence crackled in the morning air. With its narrow streets hemmed in by low buildings of mud and concrete, Nasiriyah would be a hellish place to come under fire.
The Americans felt a surge of relief as they crossed a canal marking the other side of Nasiriyah. A mile later, King checked his global-positioning system and realized for the first time that he was in the wrong place. They were too far east. There was only one way to get back on route – they had to retrace their path through Nasiriyah. King gave the order to "lock and load."
The convoy made the first turn around seven o’clock. King was in the lead; Piestewa brought up the rear. Suddenly, King’s driver, Pvt. Dale Nace, heard the popping of small-arms fire. "Trucks were hitting the gas and coming around the turn fast," he recalls. "They were trying to get away from something."
Several rounds slammed into the Humvee that Piestewa was driving. At least two bullets punched through her plastic side window, missing her head by inches.
In the confusion, King missed the turn that led back into the city. Dowdy yelled over his radio, alerting King to his mistake. Now they had to find someplace wide enough to turn the big trucks around. But the road was too narrow, and they kept driving, headed in the wrong direction. Under the strain, a five-ton truck broke down and had to be abandoned.
It was a harrowing two miles before the convoy managed to turn around and head back toward the city. King had completed the turn and was racing back west when he saw the Humvee driven by Piestewa bringing up the rear, still heading east. The two vehicles stopped. They weren’t taking fire at the moment, so King jumped out to confer with Dowdy, leaving Piestewa and Nace a couple of feet from each other in their Humvees.
"Pi, are you all right?" Nace asked. The two were friends and had worked in the same office back at Fort Bliss. In response, Piestewa lifted the plastic window that she had zipped down and showed him the bullet holes.
Nace didn’t think he could lead the convoy out of what he knew would be a withering attack once they headed back into Nasiriyah. Piestewa was the more experienced driver, so Nace asked whether she would switch places.
She shook her head. She knew her responsibility was to stay with her commander, even if it meant remaining in the last vehicle in the convoy – the most dangerous position in an attack. "I’m not getting out of this Humvee," she told Nace.
The officers climbed back in. "Take care, Pi," said Nace, slipping his vehicle into gear but terrified of what lay ahead.
"You, too," she told him. Nace was struck by how serene she sounded, as if she were just saying goodnight after another day of work back at Fort Bliss.
"She had this look on her face that was like: ‘Something is about to happen, but we’re going to be OK,’ " Nace recalls. "It made me feel at ease with myself. She gave me this calmness. If it wasn’t for her, I probably would have freaked out." Piestewa turned her Humvee around, took up position at the rear of the convoy and headed back toward the city.
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