When I joined the Army in the summer of 2001, my plan was to get an education. And what an education I got: right at the start of the conflict in Iraq, I became a prisoner of war. I remember my convoy being attacked, grenades flying, my rifle jamming—and then darkness. I remember waking up behind enemy lines in an Iraqi hospital, unable to move my arms or legs. I was 19.
When I came home to America after nine days in captivity and a dramatic rescue by U.S. forces, I faced a new battle: an array of surgeries to fix my spine, arms, legs, and feet. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the military and the media labeled me a hero. They said I’d gone down guns blazing, like Rambo, when really my rifle had jammed and I hadn’t shot a soul. I clarified this as soon as I could—and then people were angry that I’d been called a hero in the first place.
Thousands of letters poured in, some supportive, many furious. “You didn’t do anything over there,” people wrote. “You are no hero.” I had never claimed to be one.
All this was quite an education. And here’s what I learned: I’m lucky. I came home alive. I reunited with my family. I got to go on to college and study to become a teacher. And recently I received my diploma from West Virginia University.
I don’t really like to talk about what it took to get here. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or to think I don’t know how fortunate I am. Everyone else in my vehicle in Iraq was killed. My best friend, Lori Piestewa, died as a prisoner of war. I’m still here.
I’m also incredibly proud of this moment. I always dreamed of becoming a teacher, ever since my own kindergarten teacher took me under her wing when I was frightened on the first day of school. We are still in touch today. That’s the kind of teacher I want to be.
We live all over the country, but we are bonded for life.
In the eight years since my captivity, I’ve had 21 surgeries. I have metal parts in my spine, a rod in my right arm, and metal in my left femur and fibula. My right foot is held together by screws, plates, rods, and pins. I have no feeling in my left leg from the knee down, and I wear a brace every day. Sometimes I’ll get a flash of pain, or feel upset because I can’t run, and then I’ll remind myself: I’m alive. I’m here. Take some ibuprofen.
I have no memory of what happened to me after my convoy was attacked, before I woke up in that Iraqi hospital. Doctors later told me I had been beaten and sexually assaulted. Perhaps I’ll never be able to recall what happened. I think this is a good thing. Iraq is in the past.
I do still have nightmares. They’re always the same: someone is chasing me and I can’t get away. I have to wake myself up, get out of bed, walk around. If I don’t, I’ll fall right back into that dream. I don’t talk to a therapist about this—I have my family and friends. They are more supportive than I think a doctor could ever be. I also have fellow survivors from my unit, like Shoshana Johnson, and I talk to them every few months as well. We live all over the country, but we are bonded for life.
And I have my 4-year-old daughter, Dakota, and her wonderful father, Wes. As we prepare to celebrate the holidays together, I think of all the soldiers who are coming home from Iraq as the troops pull out for good. I think of how happy the families will be, together again. The soldiers are finally coming home.
As told to Abigail Pesta.