By Osha Gray Davidson
Rolling Stone, 27 May 2004 Page 3 (page 1 - page 2)
Piestewa arrived at her new home in Fort Bliss, Texas, in October 2001. She was assigned to the 507th, where she was responsible for keeping track of supplies and performing other clerical work. She quickly developed a reputation for being efficient, friendly and quick to stand up for herself. "Pi was just her own person," recalls Spc. Shoshana Johnson, a company cook. "People would automatically assume she was Hispanic. She was like, ‘No, no. Piestewa is Hopi.’ She’d correct them in a heartbeat. She’d break it down to them."
|Jessica Lynch and Lori Piestewa, deployment day, February 17, 2003.|
A few months later, Piestewa got a roommate: a shy, petite eighteen-year-old named Jessica Lynch, from the hollows of West Virginia. The two could have come from different planets. Piestewa was a natural athlete; Lynch surprised her family just by completing basic training. Though they were the same height, Piestewa had an extra thirty pounds on the rail-like Lynch. Lynch spent hours getting her bangs and makeup just right and color-coordinating her outfit; Piestewa would throw on baggy jeans and a T-shirt three sizes too large. Lynch didn’t care about music; Piestewa, who loved Tupac, would crank the volume on her boombox and strut around the room as he rapped: "You either ride wit' us, or collide wit' us/It's as simple as that for me and my niggaz."
Despite their differences, or maybe because of them, Lynch and Piestewa became best friends. They quickly dispensed with first and last names, calling each other "roommate" or "roomie." They stayed up all night talking about boys and doing "girl things," dyeing each other’s hair and getting Lori out of her baggy jeans and into something more stylish. "They were like sisters," says Piestewa’s mother, Percy, who made the nine-hour drive to Fort Bliss with Lori’s kids as often as she could. "Jessi was teaching her how to be a girl again."
When Piestewa and Lynch weren’t on duty, they drove Piestewa’s beloved charcoal-gray Mitsubishi Eclipse to the mall in El Paso and spent the day window shopping and going to movies. They didn’t usually watch war films, but Lynch remembers one they did see: Black Hawk Down, based on the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, that killed eighteen American soldiers and more than a thousand Somalis.
"The film didn’t really bother us," Lynch says with a shrug. "We never actually thought we were going to Iraq. I mean, we’d always joke around and, you know, kid about it. But we never actually thought that we would end up in a combat zone."
In January 2003, when the 507th got word it was to deploy to the Middle East, Piestewa was expected to remain at Fort Bliss. She had severely injured her shoulder in a training exercise and was recovering from surgery. But Piestewa knew her roommate was nervous about going into a war zone. And there were the other members of her unit to consider. So Piestewa decided to argue her way into deployment. Her kids were safe in Tuba City. The 507th was her family now, and it was in danger. She told her brother Wayland she had a feeling that Lynch – or someone else in the company – was going to get into trouble in Iraq. She wanted to be in a position to help.
Lynch told Piestewa it was OK, she didn’t have to go. But she had made up her mind.
"You have to – I have to," Piestewa told her roommate. She went to her superiors and lied about her shoulder, saying it had healed. She was returned to active duty.
On February 17th, as the 507th was leaving Fort Bliss, a reporter with local television station KFOX did a short interview with Piestewa. On tape, surrounded by her family, she appears relaxed about the deployment. "I’m ready to go," she says with a smile.
Nasiriyah.23 March: roughly 0710 hours
As the convoy turned south into the city, the street itself seemed to explode. Heavy machine-gun fire erupted from all sides and AKs poured bullets down from the rooftops. Rocket-propelled grenades zeroed in on the large trucks. In seconds, the convoy disintegrated into a blur of chaos, dust, violence and adrenaline. The goal now was simply to survive, to get out of what the military aptly calls the "kill zone." The faster-moving vehicles raced ahead of the large trucks. Drivers mashed their gas pedals to the floor, but supply trucks aren’t built for speed. The Iraqis had made piles of debris in the streets, forcing the Americans to slalom around them while under the nonstop barrage. Tires were shot to tatters. Engines began to overheat.
Sgt. Donald Walters, who was trapped under fire when his truck was disabled, was taken prisoner. He was later executed – shot twice in the back. A soldier in the cab of one truck was struck by a bullet in the forehead and died instantly. Another had his arm shattered by a bullet. Another was hit in the hip. Another in the knee. The dust and flying sand jammed many M-16s, making it impossible to fight back.
Piestewa raced her Humvee through the city, steering around roadblocks, RPG and mortar strikes. It was as chaotic inside the vehicle as it was outside. Dowdy was firing his M-16 while shouting at the drivers they passed to "Hurry up, hurry up, go, go!" In back were two soldiers – Sgt. George Buggs and Spc. Edward Anguiano – picked up during the attack when their wrecker bogged down in the sand. They were shouting to each other as one fired a machine gun and the other tried to pick off attackers with his M-16. Jessica Lynch’s gun had jammed before she could get off a shot. She looked over at Piestewa and was surprised to see that her friend appeared calm – intent on what she was doing, but in control.
Up ahead, Spc. Edgar Hernandez was maneuvering an ungainly five-ton tractor-trailer through the ambush with Shoshana Johnson in the passenger seat. They crossed the Euphrates River into a more open area – only to find that the stretch of road was even more heavily fortified, lined with berms protecting scores of Iraqi soldiers and fedayeen militiamen. The gunfire intensified and so did the incoming RPGs and mortar shells. Hernandez ducked below the dashboard as bullets came through the window. He spotted too late a dump truck the Iraqis had parked in the middle of the road. He swerved to avoid a collision, and his truck jackknifed as it skidded to the right. It came to rest with the cab in the dirt and the trailer sticking into the road.
Piestewa’s Humvee was close behind, going at least forty-five miles per hour and weaving to escape gunfire. She had just turned to go around the disabled trailer when an RPG hit her front-left wheel well.
Inside the truck’s cab, Johnson was firing her M-16 when she felt a jolt. She and Hernandez had taken hits from RPGs, and Johnson’s first thought was that they’d been hit again. But the impact was stronger this time: The entire truck had been shoved forward. Hernandez looked out his window, back toward the trailer. He saw the wrecked Humvee sticking out from under the truck. The blast from the RPG had thrown the Humvee to the right, where it slid below the trailer, still traveling at a high rate of speed, and plowed into the truck’s massive hitch.
Percy Piestewa knew that the men in uniform knocking on the door weren’t bearing good news. But it could have been worse. Lori was missing in action. She could be alive. As word spread through Tuba City, family and clan members hurried over to be with the Piestewas. The vigil began. Every evening at six o’clock, as the sun was rising in Iraq, the Piestewas stood outside and, in traditional Hopi fashion, offered corn pollen and food. "We hoped that would give the girls the nourishment, the strength to endure," says Percy. "If they were in captivity and being tortured and stuff, that would give them the strength to deal with that."
There was encouraging news on April 1st. Jessica Lynch had been rescued from a hospital in Nasiriyah. But three days later, the men in uniform were back at the Piestewa’s door. The team that had retrieved Lynch had discovered a mass grave behind the hospital. One of the bodies had been positively identified as Lori’s. She had survived the crash but died at the hospital a short time later, lying in a bed next to Lynch, the roommate she had come to Iraq to protect. Piestewa was buried on Hopi land, out in the desert, in a cemetery reached by a rutted dirt road. On a recent day, her grave was covered with flowers, cards, a bottle of her favorite iced tea, a PayDay candy bar and a banner reading: "Forever Our Lady Warrior."
Piestewa’s family continues to appear at pro-military events, vocally supporting the troops that remain in Iraq. But as the fighting dragged on, their doubts and frustrations about the war itself began to slip out. In November, the Piestewas were the guests of honor at the convention of the National Congress of American Indians attended by 3,000 members, many of them veterans. During the opening session, Lori’s father and mother sat on the stage with her children, three-year-old Carla and five-year-old Brandon, as those in attendance rose and sang traditional songs in honor of Lori.
Then Terry Piestewa stood up. He thanked the audience for the tribute to his daughter – and called on all Indian soldiers to leave Iraq and come home. "It is not right for us Native Americans to be out there doing someone else’s job," he declared.
He received a standing ovation.
The following month, NBC aired a video showing Lori Piestewa in the hospital in Iraq, gravely wounded and in pain. Her family was furious at the network for what they saw as a ghoulish invasion of Lori’s last moments of life. They issued a scathing indictment of the media – and included some pointed anti-war criticisms of the Bush administration. It said in part: "Let us make sure that both President Bush, his father and each of his aides and advisers get a copy of Lori dying in agony so that they realize, from the comfort of their homes, that war should be the last option."
"We don’t want war," says Piestewa’s brother Wayland. "Unfortunately, we know that it’s one of the things that even our culture had to experience. But maybe we can change things next time. Maybe before we decide to go into another country, we can make sure we get all the facts. And let’s have those who are responsible for making that decision, let’s have them be truthful."
Even after Lori was buried, the circumstances surrounding her death remained sketchy. Every rumor was reported as fact, and her family didn’t know what to believe. They received reports of Lori fighting to the death, taking many Iraqis with her. "She drew her weapon and fought," Rick Renzi, an Arizona congressman, announced after one Army briefing. "It was her last stand."
It was the kind of image that would make many military families proud: the heroic warrior, guns blazing, fighting to the end. But when Terry Piestewa finally learned the truth about his daughter’s death, he was relieved. Lori hadn’t fired a shot. All she was doing was driving, trying to get the people she cared about to safety.
"We’re very satisfied she went the Hopi way," her father says, smiling. "She didn’t inflict any harm on anybody."
© Osha Gray Davidson, 2004 Rolling Stone, 27 May 2004.
Lori Piestewa Memorial Fund
Contributions to the Fund will be used to help Lori's children. You can make a donation at any Wells Fargo bank, account number 0464633783, or send a check to:
Lori Piestewa Memorial Fund
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