CHESTER - A wounded warrior at age 19, Jessica Lynch could be leading a life of resignation, self-pity and defeat.
But that's not really living.
On Saturday, she shared with a Chester audience of veterans, young and old alike, how she chooses to live life one day at a time. "Going through what I did, I know life is valuable and needs to be cherished," she said.
A HERO’S VISIT — Jessica Lynch, 30, of Wirt County, W.Va., visits with residents of The Orchards at Foxcrest, Chester, on Saturday during the seventh annual “Meet Our Heroes” event. -- Stephen Huba
Lynch, 30, of rural Wirt County, W.Va., near Parkersburg, was the featured speaker for the seventh-annual "Meet Our Heroes" event at The Orchards at Foxcrest, Chester, during which 16 veterans were honored, some of them posthumously, for their military service.
Ten years after her capture and rescue in Iraq made her an international cause celebre, Lynch still walks with a limp and has the visible scars of war. But she wears an infectious smile and takes a message of hope and perseverance wherever she goes.
On Saturday, she connected with the Orchards residents and family members the way only a fellow West Virginian can do, encouraging them to set goals and work to achieve them.
"That never-give-up attitude and spirit of perseverance has helped me overcome my struggles," she said on a hot, windy Saturday. "Life will take you on detours when you want to keep travelling on the road you're on."
Lynch identified the "day my life changed forever" not as March 23, 2003 - the day she was taken prisoner in Iraq - but as an otherwise unassuming day in May 2001 when she and her brother were visited by an Army recruiter in Palestine, W.Va.
"At that moment, I thought I had my life figured out," she said. "I had just graduated from high school. I had visited the college of my choice, and I knew I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher."
The Army recruiter spoke of career possibilities, of travel destinations, of educational opportunities. "His Army ideal world sounded so fascinating," she said. So she and her brother enlisted.
Lynch said she was excited about her new career choice throughout that summer - until 9/11. A week after the terrorist attacks, she was an 18-year-old on her way to basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. In March 2003, after some specialized training in Fort Lee, Va., she was deployed with the 507th Maintenance Company to Kuwait.
There, they waited.
Speaking from a prepared text but in a conversational style, Lynch recounted for the rapt Orchards audience her brief but traumatic experiences in Iraq.
When war was announced, her unit entered Iraq but struggled continuously with sand, high winds and break-downs. "Everything that could go wrong for us, did," she said.
Her convoy eventually got lost and encountered an ambush by Iraqi forces. The Humvee she was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Lynch said she remembers the ensuing chaos and the courage of her fellow soldiers, but nothing after that.
Lynch's M16 rifle jammed and, contrary to government and news media accounts immediately after her rescue, she did not engage the enemy in combat. Instead, she ended up unconscious in an Iraqi hospital, wondering, "Where am I? How did I get here? Where are my comrades?"
For nine "excruciatingly painful days" Lynch lay in the hospital and hoped for rescue. She didn't know it at the time, but she had suffered a broken back at the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, a crushed right foot, a broken left tibia, head lacerations and a broken right humerus.
Her left femur was surgically removed by Iraqi doctors and replaced with a "1940s rod which was fit for a man," she said.
On April 1, her rescue finally came at the hands of U.S. special forces. "I could hear helicopters and Humvees and gunshots and men," she said. "My heart raced frantically."
Then she heard someone say, "Where is Private Lynch?"
"Even though they were speaking English, I was terrified. I was so overwhelmed and in so much pain," she said.
One of her rescuers said, "We're American soldiers, and we're here to take you home."
"Yeah," she said, "I'm an American soldier too."
"I was a broken soldier from head to toe," Lynch told her Chester audience.
In the 10 years since her rescue, Lynch has had more than 20 surgeries and has undergone countless hours of physical and occupational therapy, she said. She still has no feeling in her left leg.
It took two years of intensive therapy before she could think about life beyond her physical recovery, she said. She set little goals for herself but couldn't stop thinking about the 11 soldiers in her unit who died or the Iraqis who had taken her prisoner.
"I saw Iraqis in my dreams," she said.
Lynch received an honorable discharge later that year, receiving the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the Prisoner of War medal.
She decided to go back to school and, in 2011, graduated from West Virginia University, Parkersburg, with a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She's currently working on her master's in communication studies, in addition to substitute teaching in Wirt County and raising her daughter, Dakota, 6.
"I'm thankful that I'm still walking at all and that I still have my leg attached," she said. "I'm just so thankful to God for what he allowed me to have and that he didn't take it from me in 2003."
Lynch also paid tribute to the 2013 honorees of the "Meet Our Heroes" program, presenting each one or a representative with a plaque.
The honorees are:
- Army - Pfc. Clarence Fields, Cpl. James Butler, Pfc. Joseph Hughes, Pfc. Mark Jones, Sgt. Sayre Graham, Sgt. Ralph V. Shaw and Staff Sgt. Robert Miller (deceased);
- Marines - Cpl. Jerry Baxter;
- Navy - Signalman Bernard Burkle (deceased), Petty Officer, 3rd Class Paul Shaw and Chief Petty Officer Ralph F. Henderson III; and
- Air Force - Pvt. Edgar Earl Blewitt Sr., Sgt. Eric Flaherty, Sgt. Jerry Oyster, Staff Sgt. Roy Cashdollar (deceased) and Staff Sgt. Victor Reed.