In Honor of Memorial Day, May 25, 2020
The Homecoming of Lori Ann Piestewa, Shoshana Johnson, and Jessica Lynch
Lori Ann Piestewa, a soldier in the U.S. Army, was killed in 2003 during the Iraq War. She died in the same Iraqi attack in which her fellow soldiers, Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch, were wounded. Lori Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe in Arizona, is the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. She was also the first woman in the U.S. military killed in the Iraq War. Shoshana Johnson, a Panamanian born U.S. soldier, is the first black woman in history to be taken prisoner in combat while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States.
Lori Ann Piestewa was born in 1979 in Tuba City, Arizona, a small town of about 8,600 residents on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Coconino County. It is about 50 miles from the eastern entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park. Lori’s father is Hopi Native American and her mother is Mexican-American. Lori’s Hopi name is Qötsa-Hon-Mana, which means White Bear Girl. Her Hopi family name, Piestewa, means “people who live by the water.” In the U.S. Army, she was Private First Class Lori Ann Piestewa.
Lori’s paternal grandfather was a soldier in the U.S. Army in Europe during the Second World War, and her father was a soldier in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Shoshana Johnson’s father was a soldier in the U.S. Army.
On March 23, 2003, during the opening days of the Iraq War, PFC Lori Piestewa’s unit, the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, was part of an 18 vehicle supply convoy of 31 soldiers passing by the city of Nasiriyah, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Nasiriyah is near the ancient 5,800 year old Mesopotamian city of Ur, mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the birthplace of Abraham, the Hebrew Patriarch, who heard the call of God to begin his long journey to the Promised Land.
The convoy was supposed to bypass Nasiriyah, but soldiers in the lead truck were misled by changed highway signs. They missed the turn onto Highway 8, and mistakenly continued along Highway 7 into the city, coming under “a torrent of fire” in a chaotic, running ambush.
Lori Piestewa was driving a Humvee with other soldiers. Evading enemy fire, she was driving at high speed when an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) hit her Humvee. The explosion killed three soldiers. Her Humvee crashed into the rear of a disabled truck, and overturned.
Private First Class Lori Piestewa, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, Private First Class Jessica Lynch, and six other soldiers survived the ambush, and were taken prisoner. PFC Jessica Lynch suffered an injury to her back, a broken arm, a broken thigh, and a dislocated ankle. Specialist Shoshana Johnson was shot through both ankles. PFC Lori Piestewa suffered a severe head wound, and died soon after the ambush at Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers of the 507th were killed in the ambush.
Families of the U.S. soldiers heard about the ambush and learned of the fatalities in the 507th Maintenance Company almost immediately, when they saw soldiers of the unit being interviewed on Iraqi television. All around Tuba City, Arizona, signs appeared, saying, “Put your porch light on, show Lori the way home.” On a high mesa outside town, people arranged white painted stones that spelled out Lori’s name.
Nine days later, on April 1, 2003, PFC Jessica Lynch was extracted in a daring rescue by U.S. Special Operations Forces.
At the moment of her rescue, Jessica Lynch stated, “. . . a soldier came into the room. He tore the American flag from his uniform, and he handed it to me in my hand. And he told me, ‘We’re American soldiers, and we’re here to take you home.’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m an American soldier, too.’ I remember the hand of that fellow American soldier, reassuring me that I was going to be okay.”
The mission was the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since the Second World War, and the first ever of a U.S. female soldier.
Iraqi doctors and nurses at Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah actually protected Jessica Lynch from nearby Iraqi forces, and provided essential information to U.S. rescue forces.
While U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs staged a diversionary attack to draw Iraqi forces away from Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah, U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), Air Force Pararescue soldiers, Army Rangers, and Delta Force soldiers launched a nighttime raid on the hospital, and successfully extracted PFC Jessica Lynch.
The bodies of 11 U.S. soldiers were recovered during the rescue of Jessica Lynch, nine from shallow graves, and two from the hospital morgue. Following forensic identification, eight were identified as fellow soldiers of her company, including PFC Lori Piestewa. Specialist Shoshana Johnson was held prisoner in Iraq for 22 days, along with five other members of her unit. She was freed in a rescue mission conducted by U.S. Marines on April 13, 2003.
Private First Class Lori Piestewa was awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal. The U.S. Army promoted her, posthumously, from Private First Class to Specialist. Lori’s friend, PFC Jessica Lynch, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with combat “V”, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War Medal. Specialist Shoshana Johnson was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with combat “V”, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
PFC Jessica Lynch reluctantly was made a television celebrity, but strongly insisted that the real heroes were her fellow soldiers, like First Sergeant Dowdy, who picked up wounded soldiers during the firefight, and carried them under fire to safety.
Jessica Lynch spoke of the bravery of Sergeant First Class Patrick Wayne Miller, who jumped from his vehicle, and began firing on a mortar position that he believed was about to open fire on the convoy. He stood his ground to protect two wounded soldiers, while firing at Iraqi soldiers with a malfunctioning weapon, feeding ammunition into it by hand. SFC Patrick Miller was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action, the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
She spoke of the bravery of Sergeant Donald Ralph Walters, who fought “until the very end” when he ran out of ammunition. Several empty ammunition magazines were found near the location of his capture. SGT Donald Walters was shot in the leg, stabbed twice with a knife in the abdomen, and suffered a dislocated left shoulder. Forensic information suggests that SGT Walters was captured and executed.
An Iraqi ambulance driver witnessed SGT Walters, still alive, guarded by six Fedayeen (paramilitary soldiers), in front of a building. Walters was led inside the building, and several hours later, the same witness delivered his dead body to the hospital. DNA samples recovered from blood inside the building match that of SGT Walters, and splatter vectors suggest that he died from two gunshot wounds to the back. SGT Donald Walters was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War Medal.
Lori Piestewa’s impact on America lives on today. Lori’s death led to the Hopi and Navajo tribes holding a rare joint prayer gathering between these centuries old rivals. The American Legion Post on the Hopi Reservation is named the Lori Piestewa American Legion Post. ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, accompanied by Jessica Lynch, built a new home for Lori’s parents and children, and also built a new veterans center on the Navajo reservation.
In testimony before a Congressional committee, Jessica Lynch stated, “My hero is my brother, Greg, who continues to serve his country today (as a soldier in the U.S. Army). My hero is my friend, Lori Piestewa, who died in Iraq, but who set an example for generations of Hopi Native American women, and little girls everywhere, about the contribution that just one American soldier can make.”
Jessica Lynch named her daughter, Dakota Ann, in honor of her friend, Lori Ann.
Lori’s legacy lives on in the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games held each year in July at the Fiesta Bowl, near Phoenix, Arizona. Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountains and the Piestewa Freeway that passes near the mountain is named in her honor. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota honored her, as did Indian Nations across the United States. Lori is honored in the National Native American Hall of Fame.
Lori Piestewa’s name is on a plaque at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, at Fort Bliss in Texas, at Fort Benning in Georgia, and at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in La Jolla, California.
Another famous Native American war fighter from Arizona is U.S. Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, born on the Gila River Pima Indian Reservation in Pinal and Maricopa counties. Ira Hayes was one of the six U.S. Marines who raised the American flag in the fight for Iwo Jima during World War II.
This Memorial Day, I admire these 31 brave U.S. soldiers, supply clerks, food service workers, mechanics, and truck drivers. Who would have thought that these young U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps soldiers could fight so well? They held their own for a while in a savage fight, surrounded by a more numerous force, within an enemy stronghold. These young American men and women deserve our most profound respect. Can we imagine ourselves in similar circumstances? How well would we fight?
I think that someday I will meet these special men and women of history. At that amazing moment, when eyes meet eyes, all the air inside me will stop. It will be a hushed moment of knowing, an instant of profound blessing. But for now . . . Reverence to the Brave, Honor to the Fallen . . . a blessed Memorial Day to everyone I love, and to everyone you love.