Jessica Lynch became a national hero in 2003 after she was dramatically rescued by a team of Special Ops soldiers from an Iraqi hospital where she was believed to be a prisoner of war. Her story was compelling not only because she was a 19-year-old supply-unit clerk who had stumbled into an attack during convoy travel with her unit, but because she was portrayed by military authorities as having valiantly fought back against her attackers even as her unit was surrounded and her comrades were killed and injured. The legend quickly unraveled, however, after Lynch returned to the States, recuperated from her substantial injuries (broken arm and leg bones, damage to her back and kidneys, and a six-inch laceration to her head) and began to speak out about what had really happened. Today, Lynch testified before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing probing the source of misleading information about Lynch and about the death of Army Ranger Specialist Patrick Tillman in Afghanistan. NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo spoke with Lynch, who turns 24 on April 26, about her experiences. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why did you decide to testify?
Jessica Lynch: Mainly it was about me just getting out the truth. I’ve spent the past four years trying to tell everybody the real truth, and not the stories they put together. They were false, ya know?
What was the greatest misinformation about you?
The whole Rambo story, that I went down fighting. It just wasn’t the truth.
So what really happened?
I didn’t even get a shot off. My weapon had jammed. And I didn’t even get to fire. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the back of our [Humvee], which made Lori [Piestewa], my friend, lose control of the vehicle, and we slammed into the back of another truck in our unit.
Who is to blame for spreading the misinformation?
Well, I think really the military and the media. The military, for not setting the record straight and the media for spreading it, and not seeking the true facts. They just ran with it instead of waiting until the facts were straightened out.
What do you hope Congress achieves with today’s hearing?
I hope it [helps] the Tillman family get the accurate information that they deserve. They need to know what happened to their son and why they were lied to.
Do you feel like this is a pattern, misinformation from the military?
Well, it kind of seems like that’s the way it’s been happening. I hope they can learn from mistakes and correct this and not let other family members and soldiers have to deal with the things that my family and I went through.
What was the hardest part of having misinformation spread?
Knowing that it wasn’t the truth. I just, I had to get [the truth] out there. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself knowing that’s not exactly how it happened.
You said during your testimony you weren’t there for political reasons. But do you have an opinion about how the administration used your story and Tillman’s story for political gain?
I don’t know because there’s no way of knowing why this stuff was even created in the first place. Only the people who created it would have the answers.
So how is your recovery going?
I still have a lot of problems, a lot of injuries. I will probably never heal or be the same again. But I’m OK with it, and I’ve learned to cope with it in my own way.
You said in your testimony that Iraqi nurses actually tried to return you once to the Americans. What happened?
We were fired upon, and [the] driver of the ambulance had to turn around and brought me back to the hospital.
So the Iraqis were trying to return you?
Yeah, hopefully that’s what they were doing. That’s what I was told they were doing. We were headed to a checkpoint and we were fired upon.
If the Iraqis wanted to give you back, why did the military stage a big rescue? Couldn’t they just knock on the hospital door?
I don’t know. I hope that they had my interests in mind, and were wanting to get me out of there.
Do you feel like you were exploited by the military?
No, I don’t. I felt sort of like that in the beginning, yes. But now, four years later, I don’t.
During today’s testimony Pat Tillman’s brother, Kevin, says he feels his brother’s death was “exploited” for political reasons.
I agree, they did that in a way. Pat Tillman's situation was similar to mine but completely different. He didn’t have the opportunity to come home and tell the truth and set the record straight like I did.