WASHINGTON - Pfc. Jessica Lynch woke up on U.S. soil yesterday on a glorious, sunny morning at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in northwest Washington to the news that seven of her colleagues, also POWs held in Iraq, are free.
Even though she is described as being in pain from serious injuries she received in Iraq and tired from the ordeal and her nine-hour flight Saturday from Germany, her doctors made certain that a TV was connected in her room so she could see the release of five comrades from the 507th Maintenance Company and two other American prisoners of war.
Her delighted family, staying at an Army hotel located on the secure medical center grounds, joined her in watching and then released a statement rejoicing over the release of “seven great American heroes.”
“This is certainly an answer to our prayers and, we're certain, the prayers of literally millions of other concerned citizens of the world,” the statement said.
Maj. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the commander of the medical center and a doctor himself, said he would not discuss the specifics of her condition, which the hospitals lists as satisfactory. But he made clear that she would be hospitalized at Walter Reed for “at least a few weeks.”
Nonetheless, he sounded an optimistic note, saying that nearly all the soldiers from the war with Iraq who have been treated with similar injuries at Walter Reed - the Army says those treated there is 115 - are expected to make full recoveries. The seven freed POWs also will come to Walter Reed although they were treated and released in Germany yesterday.
General Kiley, smiling, said Private Lynch seemed to be in good spirits. He said when he met her Saturday night upon arrival by ambulance , welcomed her home, and told her he was glad to have her at the hospital, she replied, “I'm glad to be here too sir.”
The 19-year-old Palestine, W. Va., native and Army supply clerk was captured March 23 in the Army's worst day in the war against Iraq when the 507th, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, was ambushed outside of Nasiriyah. The public still has not heard her remarkable story, but U.S. officials said she fired at attacking Iraqi Fedayeen until she ran out of ammunition. She is being hailed as a hero around the world.
After 10 days of captivity, Private Lynch was rescued in a daring raid on a Nasiriyah hospital after an Iraqi lawyer most Americans so far know only as Mohammed walked six miles in the desert to alert U.S. troops that a young blond woman was being held captive in the hospital where his wife, a nurse, worked. Private Lynch was rescued shortly before midnight April 1 while Americans used diversionary fire and a special operations team helicoptered in to get her, a small, terrified young woman hiding under her sheets. When they announced they were American soldiers there to rescue her, the young woman reportedly peeped out and replied, “I'm an American soldier too.”
Technically, Private Lynch is being treated the same as dozens of other American soldiers injured in Iraq and is staying in the same ward where 46 other soldiers are being treated, most of them having arrived with her from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
Doctors do not want her exposed to the pressures of media scrutiny, and neither does her family. In their written statement, the family said: “`To the families of these great troops, we'd like to offer you our assurances that they will receive the best care imaginable. To the media, we hope you'll be as supportive and respectful to these GIs' privacy as you have to ours.”
But the Army clearly understands Private Lynch is special and increased security in and around Walter Reed to ensure her privacy. Nine others were killed in action when her company was ambushed, and she captured everyone's imagination by her pluck, the seriousness of her injuries, her youth, and the fact she is female.
Doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany said she was treated for a spinal injury; fractures to her right arm, both legs, her right foot and ankle; and head lacerations. It is not clear whether gunshot wounds in her upper right arm and lower left leg caused the bone fractures there.
General Kiley said, “Part of the decompression process is to allow those soldiers time to recover, to reorient to their surroundings, to their friends, to their units.”
Residents of her hometown of Palestine are having auctions and bake sales to raise money for her family and her college education. (Her father, Gregory, a self-employed truck driver, has not worked since she was declared missing.)
Her goal when she went into the Army was to get a college degree and become a kindergarten teacher. But she has more to grapple with than getting the money for college. She must regain her health, and she is now famous, with Hollywood and publishers clamoring for the rights to her story.
And Palestine is now known, by a green-and-white highway sign, as the home of former POW Jessica Lynch.