Jessica Lynch's Gift
It was a pact between two buddies going to war, and Pfc. Jessica Lynch was determined to honor it. Heading to Iraq in 2003, she and her best friend, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, swore that if one of them didn’t come home, the survivor would look after the other’s family. What happened next riveted the nation: Iraqi troops ambushed their 507th Maintenance Company convoy March 23, 2003, killing Piestewa, 23, and 10 others. Lynch was severely injured, captured and later rescued by U.S. troops. Though it took all of her energy simply to recover, Lynch never forgot Piestewa’s two children. “I wanted to make sure they were taken care of,” she says. “I’m just keeping my promise.”
And how. Last year Lynch nominated Piestewa’s father, Terry, 61, and mother, Percy, 57 (who have custody of Brandon, 7, and Carla, 5), for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, hoping the show would offer the couple, both nearing retirement, a step up from their trailer on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Ariz. The results will air on the May 22 season finale. Some 1,300 workers labored for a week to create a 4,336-sq.-ft. stone-and-wood home outside Flagstaff. With a cavernous living room and views of the nearby San Francisco Mountains, the house evokes Piestewa’s American Indian heritage and holds memorabilia that include photos of Lori and her military medals. “Its a dream come true, more than a dream,” says Percy Piestewa. “I would never have dreamed something like this.”
To Lynch—who traveled from her Palestine, W.Va., home to watch the process—it was simply away of honoring Lori, whom she met in 2002, when they were roommates at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Then 18, Lynch was an aspiring kindergarten teacher looking to earn college money. Piestewa—half Hopi, half Mexican-American and raised in Navajo country—was a divorced single mom hoping for a fresh start. The pair bonded over Friends reruns and trips to El Paso’s malls. “We became friends,” says Lynch, “then best friends.” When the pair, who were not in a combat unit, shipped out to Iraq in 2003, danger didn’t loom large. “They were just going to go out there, have fun and come back,” says Percy, an administrative assistant at Tuba City Junior High School.
Then came the awful day when their convoy took a wrong turn near Nasiriya. Lynch’s truck broke down. Piestewa, driving a Humvee, stopped to aid her friend, yelling, “Get in, Roomy.” Soon the convoy, which had lost its way, drove into the middle of an ambush. Trying to flee, Piestewa lost control of her vehicle and crashed into another U.S. military truck. She later died in the same Iraqi hospital where Lynch was treated. But her best friend didn’t learn of her death until after her rescue.
Lynch, who was gravely injured in the same accident, went home with fractures in her spine, a shattered arm, crushed foot and broken leg. Since then, she has focused on her physical therapy. Now walking with the help of crutches or a cane, she still has no feeling in her left foot and has undergone numerous operations. Living with her parents before starting West Virginia University next fall, she enjoys shopping with pals at Wal-Mart and hanging out at the local Pizza Hut. “She’s met a lot of celebrities, but she’s the same old Jessie to us,” says her grandmother, Wyonema Lynch. “It hasn’t spoiled her.”
But life has certainly changed. She has launched the Jessica Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit that has donated about $100,000 to, among other things, programs for soldiers’ kids and for college scholarships (the charity has already set aside college tuition for Carla and Brandon). And her engagement to fellow G.I. Ruben Contreras, which was expected to culminate in a 2004 wedding, is off—though the pair remain close. “He’s pursuing college,” says Wyonema, “as Jessie plans to.”
Wherever Lynch goes, she’s taking Lori with her. She wears a silver bracelet bearing Piestewa’s name and visits her friend’s children, who call her Aunty. “She’s family,” says Percy. “Always will be.” Though they have little memory of their mom, the kids visit her grave in the village of Moenkopi. “And we look in the sky to always see her there, in the stars,” Brandon says.
In their new home, Extreme Makeover has created a memory room filled with art, letters and other mementos to help the children remember Lori. The show not only built the house but also constructed a veterans’ complex in Tuba City. “We realized we should not only help this family,” says host Ty Pennington, “but help Native American veterans.”
That delighted the Piestewas, who say Lynch’s kindness has moved them beyond words. “Thank you,” says Percy, “doesn’t sound like enough.” Lynch is sure her friend would be thrilled that her children will grow up in a sprawling house. “I know she’d want to build it herself and not let anyone else do it,” says Lynch. “But I know she’s up there looking down on us and smiling.”
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Inez Russell in Flagstaff and Rose Ellen O’Connor in Washington, D.C.