Navy, Marines, Air Force, Army formed unit to rescue Lynch

U.S. officer describes mission to save soldier held in Iraqi hospital

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

DOHA, Qatar - "Jessica Lynch," said the commando in full battle gear, taking off his helmet. "We are United States soldiers, and we are here to protect you and take you home."

"I'm an American soldier too," replied the 19-year-old Army private first class, lowering a bedsheet she had pulled over her head and peering up at one of the men who would whisk her out of captivity at Saddam Hospital and out of Iraq.

The details of the rescue of Lynch, who was badly injured and is recovering at a military hospital in Germany, were recounted for the first time yesterday by a senior U.S. Central Command official.

In a daring, deep-night raid Tuesday, Lynch was spirited out the Iraqi town of Nasariyah, where she and her comrades in the 3rd Army Infantry's 507th Maintenance Company had been ambushed a week earlier.

U.S. Air Force Major Gen. Gene Renuart Jr., Centcom's director of operations, said the raid had been staged by a special task force of Navy SEALs, Marine commandos, Air Force pilots and Army Rangers acting on intelligence tips from Iraqi civilians in the city.

The raid began when a U.S. Marine unit staged an attack on Nasariyah to divert Iraqi fighters guarding the hospital. The rescue team, wearing night vision goggles, then was flown by helicopter to the hospital, where they persuaded an Iraqi doctor to take them to Lynch's room.

Renuart said Lynch appeared "pretty scared" when the commandos found her. While being rushed to a helicopter, she reached up and grabbed the hand of the Army Ranger doctor and gripped it for the rest of the trip, he said.

"Please, don't let anybody leave me," Lynch told the doctor.

The commandos who rescued Lynch also recovered 11 bodies from the area around the hospital. The Pentagon confirmed early yesterday that nine of them were those of fallen U.S. soldiers. Eight of the nine died in the ambush on Lynch's maintenance unit.

Renuart said the Iraqi physician led the commandos to a burial site near the hospital. The commandos did not have shovels, so they dug up the bodies "with their hands," Renuart said.

It was "a great testament to the will and desire of coalition forces to bring their own home," he said.

Seven of the eight dead soldiers were identified as members of the 507th Maintenance Company, stationed at Fort Bliss outside El Paso, Texas: Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso; Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Texas; Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland; and Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo. The eighth was identified as Sgt. George E. Buggs, 31, of Barnwell, S.C., who was with the 3rd Division Support Battalion.

Many of the families had been bracing for the possibility that the soldiers, previously listed as missing, had been killed. "But this is still a terrible shock," said Carole Dungan, Kiehl's aunt. Kiehl's wife, Jill, is expected to give birth to a son this month.

Piestewa was the first American servicewoman and the first American Indian killed in the war. "Our family is proud of her," said her older brother, Wayland. "It gives us comfort to know that she is at peace right now."

Piestewa was the mother of two young children. And for the Hopi community in Arizona, she was a source of pride.

"The tragedy has rocked the very foundation of the Hopi reservation since many of us have been continually praying with the Piestewa family for Lori's safe return," Wayne Taylor, the tribal chairman, said yesterday.

"We were just visited by Mother Nature. We had a gentle snowfall. In the Hopi belief, the deceased come back home and they visit the family through the moisture, and this is what happened just a while ago. So I think we were very blessed today."

The Lynch family got word yesterday of the dead troops found at the hospital just before they boarded a plane in Charleston, W.Va. The family broke off a news conference after being told that members of their daughter's unit were among those whose bodies were retrieved.

"I wasn't aware of this. ... Our hearts are really saddened for her other troop members and the other families," Lynch's father, Gregory Lynch Sr., said before choking up.

The New York Times and Associated Press contributed to this article.

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