Sorting fact from fiction in POW's gripping story

Doubts about the tale of Jessica Lynch's rescue aren't limited to the details; questions also swirl about who is to blame for the hype

By Hugh Dellios and E.A. Torriero
Tribune staff reporters

May 26, 2003

NASIRIYAH, Iraq -- Despite her pain and fear, Jessica Lynch sipped juice and ate biscuits under the watchful eye of Iraqi doctors and nurses who shielded her from thugs during her eight days of captivity in an Iraqi hospital in March.

On her last night there, when she would hide beneath her sheets as the sounds of battle erupted, everyone at the hospital knew that the feared Iraqi Fedayeen Saddam fighters had fled by the time U.S. Special Forces troops arrived to rescue her.

Nonetheless, over the next 24 hours, the world would be introduced to Lynch as a plucky heroine who had "fiercely" fought off her Iraqi captors before being rescued in a daring raid by commandos who purportedly snatched her from the clutches of Saddam Hussein's nastiest henchmen. Her limb fractures were reported as "multiple gunshot wounds."

It was the stuff of legend, nourished by myth.

The story of Jessica Lynch is the tale of how a modern war icon is made, and perhaps how easily officials and journalists with different agendas accepted contradictory, self-serving versions of what happened to her.

Seven weeks after her dramatic rescue marked a turning point in the public-relations campaign of the war, a return to Nasiriyah raises questions about the telling of her story, and about the roles of the Pentagon and the U.S. news media in turning the petite 19-year-old Army private from West Virginia into the face of good battling evil in the Iraq war.

The final story has not been told, and no one contests Lynch's bravery during a horrifying ordeal. But the Iraqi doctors who treated her tell a less Hollywood-ready version of her rescue: They say they worked hard to save her life, they deny reports that she was slapped by an Iraqi officer and they say there was no resistance when U.S. forces raided the building.

"The Americans were jumping over fences and running around," said Hassan Hamoud, who lives nearby. "They could have walked into the hospital and no one would have stopped them."

Experts in war propaganda say the official tale fit all too nicely into the neat story line the Bush administration wanted to push and the American public wanted to hear at a time when the war did not appear to be going very well.

The Pentagon insists it did not embellish the Lynch tale when it first announced the rescue at its Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. But a few targeted whispers to reporters by anonymous U.S. officials--about Lynch's "to-the-death" gun battle before she was captured, her supposed gunshot wounds and her mistreatment at the hospital--set the plate for a feast by television networks and newspapers that could not resist such a made-for-TV plot.

"I recognized the pattern: She was being made into an important symbol," said Robert Ivie, an expert in communication, culture and the rhetoric of war at Indiana University. "She stood for the narrative that the Bush administration was telling."

Ultimately, Lynch may not be able to help sort out the real story: Doctors say she has lost her memory, at least about the incidents that put her in the Iraqi hospital.

For the past several weeks, British and Canadian journalists have been casting doubts on the Pentagon's version of the Lynch rescue. An intensely skeptical television documentary aired last week by the British Broadcasting Corp. alleged that the affair was, in the words of the presenter, "one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived."

Pentagon officials say any suggestion that the Lynch rescue was concocted, or that U.S. commanders would send troops into the path of danger solely for a publicity stunt, is "ridiculous." They blame any exaggerations on the media.

"Both the Department of Defense and the folks at CENTCOM tried very hard to tamp down a lot of the stories and speculation about [Lynch] and her circumstances," said Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington.

U.S. officials say the elite Special Forces unit would never have risked entering the hospital in a less forceful way. They were entering a combat zone where Iraqi guerrillas had been resisting fiercely for days, many of them disguised as civilians.

Cues from the White House

In its handling of the story, the Pentagon was taking its cues from the White House, which had dispatched a former Bush campaign official to the Central Command base in Doha to manage the daily briefings to 700 journalists at a center with a specially built $250,000 stage.

Lynch's April 1 rescue came at a critical time. Field commanders were expressing surprise at the Iraqi resistance, and Lynch went missing during one of the ambushes that gave the impression that the U.S. advance was bogging down. That day's newspaper front pages featured a disturbing story of how U.S. soldiers wiped out an entire Iraqi family at a road checkpoint.

Just after midnight on April 2, Central Command officials summoned journalists back to the base and, after a several-hour wait, informed them about the first successful rescue mission of an American POW since World War II.

The next day--the drama enhanced by night-vision video footage shot by the rescue team--Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks described the mission as "a classic operation, done by some of our nation's finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind."

"There was not a firefight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were firefights outside of the building, getting in and getting out," Brooks said, describing how the hospital had been converted into an Iraqi paramilitary base.

Seven weeks later, staff at Saddam Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah tell a much more subdued story about the dangers Lynch faced and how she was rescued.

Harith al-Houssona, an Iraqi doctor, said Iraqi soldiers brought Lynch into the hospital with a broken right arm, two fractured legs, a dislocated right ankle and a finger-long gash in her head--all wounds he said were common in road accident victims.

"There was never a bullet wound," said al-Houssona, who operated on Lynch to install a metal plate in her leg. "It's a myth if [someone said] there was."

Despite her nationality, lack of supplies and the chaos of treating dozens of Iraqi wounded, hospital workers were proud of how they treated Lynch as a "guest" rather than a war prisoner. They said the staff donated two of the three pints of blood she received.

After awakening two days later, Lynch was cared for by two nurses in round-the-clock shifts.

The staff members said that an Iraqi intelligence officer was sometimes stationed outside the door but that they tried to move the patient beds to conceal Lynch. And they dismiss as false a well-publicized story told by an Iraqi lawyer about how he had seen a dark-clad man slapping Lynch in her hospital bed.

The lawyer, who claimed to have sneaked in and spoken to Lynch, was credited with saving Lynch's life after alerting U.S. soldiers to her whereabouts. He has since been given asylum in the U.S., a book contract and a job offer in Washington.

"I never saw any strangers near Jessica," said Furat Hussein, one of the nurses. "She was never mistreated."

As U.S. forces began moving closer to the hospital, al-Houssona, the doctor, believed that Lynch's life was in serious jeopardy. He said at one point an intelligence officer ordered him to transfer her to another hospital, where he believed she might be killed, but he tried to stall.

Ambulance driver's view

Ultimately, Lynch was loaded into an ambulance and driven off by Sabah Khazaal, a hospital driver, and an Iraqi officer, the staff said. Soon afterward, at an Iraqi army checkpoint, another Iraqi gave the officer a gun and told him to shoot Lynch, but the officer refused, saying that was against Muslim belief, according to Khazaal.

Farther up the road, Khazaal said, the ambulance approached a U.S. Army checkpoint. The driver slowed down and turned on his ambulance lights, but then he heard gunfire, which he assumed was coming from the checkpoint, so he quickly turned around and returned to the hospital.

In its report, the BBC said that the ambulance came under direct fire from U.S. soldiers, "almost killing their prize catch by mistake." But interviewed Saturday by the Tribune, Khazaal said he had no evidence that the troops had aimed at the ambulance carrying Lynch.

In the two days leading up to April 1, the Iraqi paramilitaries fled the hospital as the city began to fall to U.S. forces. That night, another driver, Abdul-Hadi Hannoon, said he told Lynch he would drive her to the U.S. checkpoint in the morning.

About an hour later, just around midnight, the staff heard an explosion that knocked out the hospital's power. The rescue mission had begun.

Watching it all from a safe distance near his house was Hamoud, the hospital neighbor, who said an interpreter with the landing U.S. commandos approached him and asked if there were Iraqi fighters inside the hospital. Hamoud said there were not.

Having fled to an X-ray room, the hospital doctors said they could not see much but heard explosions, likely the sound of plastic explosives blowing the locks off doors. They said they also thought they heard shooting but afterwards found no evidence of bullet holes.

Some staff members were restrained with plastic handcuffs. The hospital's assistant manager, Saad Abdul Razzaq, was detained, loaded onto a helicopter and held at a U.S. base for two days.

The Iraqis say Lynch was safely swept out of the hospital within five minutes. Within hours, U.S. media were quoting unnamed U.S. officials in Washington and Qatar as saying that Lynch had been shot and stabbed.

One newspaper report, picked up and featured on three television networks' morning shows on April 3, quoted a U.S. official saying that before her capture Lynch had "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her."

Back at the hospital, the doctors, nurses and drivers have not seen the dramatic reports about how Lynch was saved. They just wish for some acknowledgment of how they helped her.

"Just a thank you," said Hannoon, the second ambulance driver. "That would make us very happy."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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