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Then & Now: Jessica Lynch

Then: Jessica Lynch was rescued from an Iraqi hospital after nine days in 2003 as a POW.



Unrest, Conflicts and War

(CNN) -- In July 2003, former POW Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch returned to her hometown of Elizabeth, West Virginia, a hero after her dramatic rescue from an Iraqi hospital by U.S. forces.

"I don't consider myself a hero. I don't consider myself anything higher than a soldier who was doing my job in the military," she told CNN in a recent interview.

The soft-spoken soldier suffered three breaks in her left leg, multiple breaks in her right foot, a fractured disk in her back, a broken right upper arm and lacerations on her head during an Iraqi attack early in the war.

Today, she is still making slow progress, but is unable to walk long distances without the aid of a cane. She hopes her body will eventually return to normal.

Lynch, then 19, was injured March 22, 2003, when her unit -- the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas -- took a wrong turn in the desert near Nasiriya, and was ambushed by Iraqis.

The Humvee in which Lynch was riding was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed into the rear of a tractor-trailer, according to a military report.

Eleven soldiers in her unit died, including four from Lynch's vehicle. Five other soldiers were taken prisoner. Lynch was taken to a hospital in Nasiriya and treated by Iraqi doctors.

"The drive across through Iraq -- it felt like it was taking days, an entire lifetime. But once we got into the ambush, it was just -- it ended as quick as it happened," she said.

"I definitely don't try to go back and remember anything only because it's so hard and painful, that if I knew I did start to remember, that I would definitely set myself back big time."

Her dramatic rescue nine days later from an Iraqi hospital made the petite blonde an instant celebrity.

"I was laying alone in the hospital bed in Iraq, and I could hear helicopters, and gunshots and bombs going off in the background. And then the next thing I knew, there were soldiers inside the building screaming, 'Where's Private Lynch?'

"And the next thing I knew, they were standing by my bed. And one soldier actually ripped off the American flag off of his shoulder and handed it to me in my left hand.

"And you know, I gripped his hand all the way to the helicopter. He looked at me, and he said, 'We're American soldiers, and we're here to take you home,' you know? So, I responded, 'I'm an American soldier, too.'"

But it soon became apparent that some of the facts surrounding her capture and rescue were stretched by the military.

"The real story was that I was just laying there and knocked out [after the ambush]. I was a little angry at the whole story, because it wasn't the truth," Lynch said. "I wasn't going to allow myself to sit there and let a lie kind of build. ... No, I didn't shoot. I didn't become a Rambo GI Jane."

To help set the record straight, Lynch wrote a book with former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg about her experiences, "I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story." She was also the subject of a television movie.

Today, Lynch tours parts of the nation on speaking engagements and expects to permanently retire from the military later this year. She'll start college in the fall with hopes of becoming a teacher.

She said that mentally and emotionally, she's fine. But physically, it's been frustrating.

Despite daily physical therapy, she still walks with a cane and has no feeling in her left foot. Her right foot is held together with plates, screws and pins, as are parts of her leg and arm. She said she's learned to live with the pain.

"For me, it's the little things I guess I took for granted before the ambush that now I can't do," she said.

She keeps in contact with fellow former POWs Shoshana Johnson and Joseph Hudson, but said they don't talk about the past.

But Lynch said she thinks about members of her unit who died that day, especially best friend and roommate Lori Piestewa, the first American Indian servicewoman killed in action in U.S. history.

Lynch credited Piestewa's strength as a soldier and person for helping her get through her time as a POW.

"She taught me to be a stronger person. She was so strong herself that it kind of rubbed off," Lynch said. "I feel that's why those nine days in that hospital -- that's why I got through it. Lori was there. I could feel her giving me strength to keep going."

In March 2005, Lynch visited Piestewa's grave in Arizona and attended ceremonies on the Navajo Reservation. Proceeds from her book deal were used to set up a foundation for Piestewa's children and others.

"If I could, I would definitely do it again," Lynch said of her service in Iraq. "I would hope that things would turn out differently, not only for me but for my entire unit.

"I am the former POW. That is who I am; that is how people will recognize me, and that's pretty much who I am," she said. "But that's not all I am."

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