Rick Bragg's 'Jessica Lynch': a quintessentially American tale

On Books

November 30, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

It is next to impossible to imagine a story with more potential for sinking into suffocating sentimentality than that of Jessica Lynch -- the 20-year-old U.S. Army private captured in the Iraq war, atrociously abused, then freed in a rescue operation that was initially presented as far more heroic than it actually was.

Rick Bragg resigned as a New York Times reporter on May 28 after being suspended with pay for relying heavily, without attribution, on a freelance's reporting for an article published by the newspaper. Almost immediately, he signed on to do an as-fast-as-possible book with the full cooperation of Jessica Lynch, her family and the Army. The result, just out, is I Am a Soldier, Too (Knopf, 207 pages, $23.95).

Deftly, respectfully and movingly, Bragg has written Lynch's story with extraordinary power. He is a journalist with the eye of a hawk, the heart of a humanitarian and the voice of an angel. His words fit together as if they were born to be that way. He combines images and phrases into associations and metaphors that speak far more than the words themselves.

He begins with Jessi's family, in the West Virginia mountains, outside an unincorporated town of 900 people, just east of the Ohio River, called Palestine. Her father is a truck driver, a man of the mountains and hollows.

When Jessi was graduated from high school, "She would serve her country," Bragg writes, "something people in her part of America still say without worrying that someone will roll his eyes. She bought it. They all had, pretty much: all the soldiers around her, the sons and daughters of endangered blue-collar workers, immigrant families and single mothers -- a United States Army borrowed from tract houses, brick ranchers and back roads. ... The military never closed its doors, and service was passed down like a gold pocket watch."

Bragg, who grew up in Alabama, knows the world of villages and survival farming, of faith and tradition. He does a convincing, affectionate job of painting scenes from Jessi's birth into her enlistment and training, her horrors and homecoming -- methodically but never ploddingly.

In Army basic training, at Fort Jackson, near Columbia, S.C., Bragg writes: "Her fatigues swallowed her like a big frog. They sagged everywhere, and her cap rode low on her nose. She looked like a child who had sneaked into her daddy's closet and tried on his uniform to play soldier. The drill sergeants towered over her -- all but a short Hispanic sergeant who was built like a potbellied stove and screamed like a cat in a sack, right into her ears."

From there, it was on to Iraq, as a member of the 507th Maintenance Company, a support and supply unit. Then, the company moved out of Camp Virginia, the holding base in Kuwait, north across the miserable desert for three days, moving sometimes at one mile an hour.

The captain of the company had mismarked his map, omitting a piece of the route that would have bypassed Iraqi forces. The group of 33 soldiers left in 18 vehicles and by March 23 were on the outskirts of the city of Nasiriyah, driving forward into massive attacks.

Up to this point, one-third of the way through the book, Bragg's tale is one of warmth and good cheer punctuated by occasional, easily tolerable hardships. Mostly, it is about comradeship with her best pal, Pvt. Lori Piestewa, an Arizona Hopi, and a newfound boyfriend, Sgt. Ruben Contreras.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, the reality of war hit home. Struck by a grenade, the Humvee she, Lori and others were in crashed. Contrary to early reports, she never fired a shot. Bragg writes that her next memory was waking up in an Iraqi military hospital bed, suddenly aware that she was a prisoner. Three hours had elapsed, between the crash and her waking. Lori died of a head wound.

Using Jessi's medical records, Bragg writes that her right arm, left leg and right foot were shattered and her spinal column was smashed in two places.

There is strong implication that most of the damage was done by Iraqis between the crash and her being taken to a nearby military hospital. She had been sexually abused. There is no question, he writes, that Iraqi doctors and nurses saved her life -- sometimes at high danger to themselves.

A special unit of Army Rangers and Navy Seals and Air Force personnel surrounded a second hospital, to which she had been moved. Unchallenged, they went in and brought Jessi out. Of the original 33, 11 were killed, seven were captured and the others were able to rejoin U.S. forces. Of the 22 who survived, nine were wounded.

She was shipped home through a base in Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and received intense medical attention. By July she was well enough to go home.

From the day of her capture, her plight got enormous attention -- prayers and anxiety, public displays of support and sympathy. Bragg writes the story of the suspense in Palestine and Wirt County, grappling with the unsureness of Jessi's fate.

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