Former POW Jessica Lynch: PTSD hit me hard

Posted at 1:56 PM, Jul 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-20 14:02:12-04

ELIZABETH, West Virginia — At night the Iraqi men come again for Jessica Lynch.

They chase her through the woods. The crunching of the earth beneath their boots drowns out her pounding breath. She turns but can’t see their faces.

Before they grab her, she wakes up.

The nightmare has never changed over 12 years. The woman made famous for being a prisoner of war would give anything for it to stop.

“I try to dream about peaceful things, beaches,” Lynch said. “That is what I cannot understand. Why are they chasing me?”

It’s a rainy June day and Lynch has awoken with more than the few hours of sleep she normally gets. She’s standing outside the courthouse in Elizabeth, West Virginia, her tiny hometown.

When the sun breaks through for a moment, she said, “You have to put a smile on! Today will be a good day.”

Jessica Lynch received hero status after she was wounded and captured in the Iraq War. She says that was overblown. Now, the West Virginia mother gives motivational talks while continuing to grapple with physical and mental wounds that remain 12 years later. (CNN)

Jessica Lynch received hero status after she was wounded and captured in the Iraq War. She says that was overblown. Now, the West Virginia mother gives motivational talks while continuing to grapple with physical and mental wounds that remain 12 years later. (CNN)

After all the cameras left this place in 2003, she stayed. It was home. It always would be.

While Lynch fought the alienation and the sense of dislocation that soldiers experience when they return from war, she committed to giving what she felt she owed the public — the retelling of her story, often through motivational speeches and appearances.

Optimistic by nature, she likes feeling that she’s inspiring people.

“Most people want to hear my story, hear about what happened,” she said. “I keep it general. I feel that people don’t want to hear all that stuff. They want to hear the positive stuff.”

By stuff, she means post-traumatic stress, and the darkness it brings.

“People expect me to be doing OK,” she said. “They expect that I should be perfectly fine now.”

Afraid she will burden friends and family or be pitied, she will not talk to them about her trauma. The idea of talking to her parents about that is unimaginable.

“I didn’t want to relay all this hurt and anger and confusion,” she said. “I saw photos of my parents when I was missing. I know how much they hurt. I didn’t want them to feel hurt again. I didn’t want to put my hurt on top of their hurt. So when they would ask, I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’ ”

For 12 years, Lynch never saw a mental health professional. She rethought that as the anniversary of her capture approached this March and she was unable to will her way out of depression.

“I put up this wall, this barrier, it was my way of dealing with things,” she said. “In the beginning, I was able to block everybody out, whereas now it’s getting harder … to deal with.”

5,000 steps, and counting

Media attention on Lynch might have dimmed, but it has never stopped. This is the third time in a month that a national news reporter has come to town. She offers CNN ideas on angles to shoot and questions to ask.

The courthouse is the usual meeting spot. Other than a few family members, no one is allowed at her home on an 80-acre property that she bought in 2006, shortly after the Army honorably discharged her. Her parents, Dee and Greg Lynch, do not talk to reporters, she said, and neither does her longtime fiance, with whom she has a daughter, Dakota.

The 8-year-old is in tow with her mom this day. She’s usually part of the story, the embodiment of Lynch’s determination to prove wrong military doctors who initially told her that her internal injuries were so severe she probably would not be able to have children.

Dakota is shy and polite. Lynch usually takes her daughter around the country when she gives speeches so the girl can experience life outside her small town.

Lynch wears a gray Army T-shirt. Her flaxen hair hangs in long, loose curls, and her makeup is carefully applied.

She’s in white shorts and wearing a Fitbit. “I try for 5,000 steps a day,” she said, looking down at her pink tennis shoes.

Lynch doesn’t have many shoe options. When the Iraqis ambushed the supply convoy carrying her and other soldiers in March 2003, her legs and feet were crushed. She has had 22 surgeries, most of them on her lower extremities. A brace runs down her left calf, immobilizing her ankle and forcing her to walk on the side of her foot. That puts enormous pressure on her joints. Her next surgery probably will be a knee replacement.

She has only dull feeling in the leg with the brace. Looking down to adjust a pad in her shoe, she notices a deep blister above her heel. She can’t feel it, but she doesn’t want it to get worse.

“Remind me to get something on that.”

‘Help me so that I can be rescued’

It’s a little after 11 a.m. at Mountain River Physical Therapy. Lynch is ready to finish her second session of the week with Jodie Guthrie.

For years, they tested Lynch’s breaking point, eight hours a day, five days a week. 

During the ambush that claimed 11 soldiers, her back was broken in two places. Her arms and legs were smashed. The Iraqis pulled her unconscious from a wrecked Humvee and, she said, took her to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces and sexually assaulted her. An Army report substantiates the rape, Lynch said, but because she wasn’t conscious, she doesn’t remember the assault.

But she cannot forget Saddam Hussein Hospital. She can’t forget what it was like to be totally unable to move when Iraqi doctors wheeled her into a room and told her they were going to cut off her leg. She screamed and begged for them to stop. They performed a crude surgery, replacing her femur with a metal rod built for a man.

“I was completely alone.” She recalled talking to God, ” ‘Guide me in the right direction so that I can get out of this hospital and help me so that I can be rescued.’ ”

Nine days after her capture, elite U.S. forces stormed the hospital.

A videotape of the rescue was broadcast around the world, but in all likelihood what it captured has faded from the public’s memory: It shows her, down to 86 pounds, quivering with fear in the back of a helicopter. Gunfire pops outside the chopper. She lets out an animal kind of scream, as her eyes bulge from her shaved head.

While Lynch was held, a flood of media reports, citing senior Washington officials, portrayed her as a GI Jane who shot at her attackers even after she was stabbed.

Though Lynch said in 2003 she felt the military had dramatized her rescue too much, for years she never outright blasted anyone for such accounts.

Then in 2007, the family of Army Ranger Patrick Tillman asked her to speak before Congress. The Army initially told Tillman’s family and the public that enemy fire had killed Tillman, when in fact he was killed by fellow Rangers.

Stories of “a little girl ‘Rambo’ from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting,” she testified, were not true. “I’m still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were legendary.”

Guthrie had read the early stories about Lynch.

“I was a little intimidated,” the therapist said. And she wondered whether she would have the emotional wherewithal to push someone who’d been through that kind of hell.

But Lynch was a force, throwing herself into therapy for eight hours a day, five days a week.

“She never complained. Not once,” Guthrie said. “She just did it.”

“She’s so mean to me! Make her stop!” Lynch laughs, her heavy feet scraping the treadmill.

A 70-year-old could do the routine of light weight-lifts and balance exercises, but for Lynch, it’s hard and painful. And they have to be careful. Iraq left Lynch with conditions doctors can’t easily explain. Her heart rate will suddenly spike. Migraines, likely from head trauma, have consumed whole days.

Each night she takes eight pills, including medication to ease nerve pain.

At the end of the session, Lynch lies down and puts her forearm over her eyes as a therapist drives needles into her legs to loosen damaged nerve tissue.

‘I didn’t want to be … a broken soldier’

After she left the Army, Lynch went after the dream that prompted her to join the service.

“I wanted to go to college and be a teacher,” she said. “I’m all about kids. I’ve always wanted that. I was meant for that and I was going to have it.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in communication.

She works sometimes as a substitute teacher. The job gives her flexibility. She doesn’t have to work when her body aches too much or she’s sleep-deprived.

At a Christmas party in 2005, her aunt introduced her to factory worker Wes Robinson.

“I met the man of my dreams, and I wanted this family. I wanted this life. I didn’t want to be a just a broken soldier with nothing,” she said.

Dakota was born in 2007. 

The professional speaking gigs pay the bills. Lynch also has appeared in Christian-themed movies, with the latest due out in September.

But Iraq still has its hold on her. The nightmares haven’t let up. She constantly walks around her house locking and rechecking doors and windows to make sure they’re secure.

“I need to check,” she said. “I do that 200 times a night before I lay down and go to bed.”

Earlier this year, she couldn’t get out of bed. “I could see myself shutting everyone out. Don’t call me, text me, don’t message me, just completely leave me alone.”

Weeks rolled by.

She had to go to the Department of Veterans Affairs to renew her benefits for physical therapy. The doctors, alarmed by her demeanor, urged her to see a psychiatrist.

She did. Their first few sessions have focused on Lori Piestewa.

‘Why am I here, and not her?’

Piestewa was Lynch’s best friend. They were in the same Humvee when the Iraqis attacked their convoy. Like Lynch, she was pulled from the wreckage. Piestewa died at Saddam Hussein Hospital.

“I still don’t cope well, to this day, with losing Lori,” Lynch said.

Their friendship formed quickly when they met a little over a year before the ambush. The teenager who won Miss Congeniality at the Wirt County Fair looked up to the 23-year-old Native American single mother from Arizona. They made it through boot camp together and slept a few feet from each other in the barracks at Fort Bliss.

Their deployments to Iraq came swiftly. They were in the desert outside Nasiriya five days after the United States invaded.

It was Piestewa who picked Lynch up when Lynch’s truck stalled in the desert sand. Lynch replays this fortune in her head a lot.

“I still don’t understand,” Lynch said. “Why did they kill her and not me? Why am I here, and not her?”

“She had two kids,” Lynch said. “I didn’t have the kids. I didn’t have these dreams. Of course, I had dreams, I was 19. But I didn’t have these realities already set. She had all these goals for herself.”

Lynch said: “If I was to go back in time, I would want to switch places with her.”

“The therapist is helping me — telling me to focus on the … memories (saying), ‘Don’t think about how you lost her.’ ”

She communicates constantly with Piestewa’s parents, Terry and Percy.

Percy said she knows that Lynch feels tremendous grief.

“I try to tell her that it is not her fault and to live, to live and that we love her,” Percy said. “I want her to not feel this way. I wish I could take away all of her pain.”

Every year, on the anniversary of the ambush, Lynch has visited the Piestewas. There’s dinner, a Hopi ceremony and time looking at a room in the Piestewas’ home that has been turned into a memorial with little pieces of her life everywhere.

This year, Lynch couldn’t bring herself to go.

She spent a short time looking at a memorial she created for her friend. It’s kept at her parents’ house.

Lynch brings the memorial to a park in Elizabeth and displays it on a picnic table.

Among the photos and small mementos is a tiny bag of dirt from Piestewa’s grave.

Dakota Ann is named after Lori Ann Piestewa. As the photos are taken, the girl plays in the park and it begins to rain.

Lynch has always told herself that when it rains, it’s Piestewa. It comforts her.

“I think, ‘Really, Lori, stop making it rain,’ ” she said. “I still think she’s sprinkling safe travels wherever I go.”