Doctors try to protect Lynch from spotlight

They worry media rush could hurt her recovery

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

With the return of the nation's most famous prisoner of war to U.S. soil, military psychologists are working to shield her from the inevitable crush of attention, which psychologists say can impede a POW's emotional recovery.

In the 11 days since the stunning rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, her family has faced a frenzy of worldwide media coverage, book proposals and lucrative movie deals. Her parents, who were at Lynch's side as she recovered at a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, said last week that they weren't ready to make any decisions about selling the rights to her story.

"She may be inundated by the publicity - that may have more of an effect than anything else," said Claude Watkins, a World War II POW who advises the federal government on captivity training. Watkins said he hopes Lynch indeed benefits financially from the story - NBC had announced a movie project - "but I don't want her to get shaken up by it."

She arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington last night after flying into Andrews Air Force Base but is unlikely to appear in public anytime soon.

Following a written protocol, POWs are treated by a team of specially trained psychologists, who remain in constant contact with them for their first few weeks of freedom and are accessible for one year after captivity.

As soon as medical conditions permit, POWs are debriefed and "decompressed." That enables them to process the experience and allows the military to gather information that might help locate comrades still in harm's way. The protocol also calls for unstructured sessions that allow former POWs to tell "war stories" and "normalize their ordeal."

Reports of Lynch's rescue April 1 by special operations forces captivated a nation starved for positive news as American troops faced unexpected resistance heading north through the desert to Baghdad.

The 19-year-old supply clerk had been missing since her unit - the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas - was ambushed March 23 northwest of Basra. Residents of her hometown of Palestine, W.Va., held a constant vigil for the aspiring kindergarten teacher, who joined the Army to expand her opportunities for education and travel.

It is unclear what happened to Lynch in captivity and how she received her injuries - a head wound, two broken legs, a fractured ankle and foot, a broken arm and a back injury. There are reports, unconfirmed by the military, that she emptied her gun during a fierce fight. But she immediately struck a symbolic chord as the nation's first female POW to be rescued since World War II.

"The wonderful news, from the reporting about this family, is that they're going to let her proceed at her own pace, and that should be the way any prisoner of war is treated," said Col. Bob Roland, professor of behavioral sciences at the National Defense University in Washington, who helped devise the military's protocol for helping POWs recover from their ordeals.

`Might not be ready'

Former POWs often blame themselves for the events leading to their capture, feel guilty for having survived when comrades have died and are ashamed of their behavior during captivity, psychologists say. They also may have no idea of their celebrity status or how to respond to it.

Lynch is the only POW rescued in Iraq. Of the 15 soldiers in her convoy who were ambushed, nine were killed, the Pentagon said. Five were taken prisoner and appeared on Iraqi television being questioned by their captors.

The return of a POW often prompts ceremonies, parades, visits from high-ranking politicians and the awarding of medals.

"There's always this pressure to meet her at the plane and pin a medal on her," Roland said. "To the extent that a person might not be ready for that, it can make the recovery harder. It's counterintuitive because we want to hug them. The whole country wants to put its arms around this gal."

The military's written protocol says, "To treat a POW as a hero too soon may set the stage for later difficulties."

"There's a whole issue of survival guilt: How did I make it, and my buddies didn't, and did I comport myself in a way that's honorable?" Roland said. "It takes awhile to integrate this stuff. When they try to do these ceremonies too soon, sometimes the POWs say, `Did I really deserve this? Maybe there are people who deserve this more.'"

The goal, Roland said, is to convince a POW such as Lynch that if she gets an award, she is a symbol of everyone's accomplishments on the battlefield, including those who never returned.

POWs didn't become a phenomenon until the Vietnam War, when a group of prisoners' wives organized to pressure the government to pay attention to them, Watkins said.

During World War II, when about 90,000 U.S. troops were taken prisoner in Germany and 30,000 in Japan, no one batted an eye when they returned, he said. "We were just another casualty."

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