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December 4, 2003
It is easy to dismiss former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch as a lightweight in military history.  She was only a 19 year-old, 5’3” passenger in a military vehicle under rocket grenade assault in Iraq, carrying a rifle that jammed before she and several others were captured.  Somehow a vivid legend was spun up—portraying her as a teenage woman-warrior—shot, stabbed, and taken prisoner only after she had emptied her weapon, killing Iraqis. 

The “G.I. Jessica” image captivated the world, even though it was thinly sourced by someone in the Pentagon and hastily headlined by the Washington Post.  Advocates of women in combat celebrated apparent evidence that women could be the equals of men in close, hand-to-hand combat.  The story was soon discredited, but questions persist about what really happened, and why the public had been so misinformed.

The deception was not the fault of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who deserves recognition for an entirely different reason.  She was not a better soldier than anyone else, but she did have the courage to say something that erstwhile admirers did not want to hear. 

It happened during her “ABC Primetime” interview with Diane Sawyer, aired on November 13.  According to the transcript, before the interview Sawyer talked with Dr. Greg Arguros, who had cared for Lynch at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  Quoting from the exact words in Lynch’s medical records, Sawyer asked about painful events that Lynch says she cannot remember.  “She was a victim of anal sexual assault…[her] body armor and bloody uniform were found in a house near the ambush site.”   Sawyer also quoted Dr. Aguros, who confirmed that the American hospital in Germany had also noted“the traumatic nature of her peri-anal lesions.” 

The doctors were unable to determine where the assault had occurred, but CIA and contemporaneous media reports indicate that after the early morning ambush Lynch was taken to a building that doubled as a medical facility and Fedayeen headquarters.  According to MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders, inside that building was a metal bed, a large battery, electrodes for purposes of torture, and the bloody uniform of a female American soldier. 

Iraqi doctors administered emergency first aid, and transported the barely alive soldier to a civilian hospital, Hussein General.  At about 10:00 AM she finally awoke in excruciating pain and fear for her life.

Experts in the field have noted that female captives, unlike their male counterparts, are frequently violated sexually and that prisoners of war are in greatest peril during the first three or four hours after capture.  Given the severity of her injuries, it is not surprising that Lynch would be unconscious and unable to remember her ordeal.  Former Blackhawk Down pilot Michael Durant, whose battered face appeared on several news magazines in 1993, still cannot remember the impact of his helicopter on the seething streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. 

Diane Sawyer asked Lynch whether it was a hard decision to include reports of the brutal assault in her book, I Am a Soldier Too.  Out of the mouth of a former Army private came words that star-studded generals have not had the courage to say.  Yes, it was, she said, “But, you know, if it did happen, then people need to know that that’s what kind of people that they are, and that’s how they treat the female soldiers that are over there.”

Lynch is correct.  If young women and mothers are going to be routinely sent to fight our wars in areas involving a high risk of capture, the American people need to know what happens if they are seized by Saddam loyalists known to use rape as a weapon.   

Pentagon officials have given several reasons for keeping silent about Lynch’s ordeal—one being that they didn’t want to be perceived as attacking the credibility of a popular female hero.  But that strategy, which some skeptics saw as expedient dissembling, was not a favor to Jessica Lynch, who became the target of resentment. 

Backlash intensified when Iraqi doctors and nurses disputed the rape report and insisted that they had done their best, with few medical resources, to mend her injuries and relieve her pain.  Jessica Lynch remembers their kindness, but that compassion did not preclude cruelty before she arrived at the civilian hospital from which she was rescued. 

Lynch also remembers that she heard an English-speaking doctor, Adnan Musharrafawi, talking about his plan to amputate her leg, which she resisted fiercely.  According to the Primetime transcript, Dr. Musharrafawi denied that statement of intent, and also denied that he had found any evidence of rape during his pre-surgical examination.  ABC and other news reports noted that Iraqi doctors said that they did not examine Lynch for rape specifically.

As a general rule, if the patient does not object, war wounds are often discussed in media reports.  Matters of sexual assault, out of respect for women, are held in strict confidence.  It is important to protect a rape victim’s privacy, but military situations are different from the civilian world. 

There is no compelling need to know, except in the courtroom, personal details about the alleged sexual abuse of former kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.  The American people do have a right to know, however, what was done to all of the soldiers who survived, were injured, captured, or died in the ambush, including the men whose bodies were displayed on Al Jazeera television. 

In 1994, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced new personnel assignment regulations to expand “career opportunities” for women.  Former POW Spec. Shoshana Johnson, who aspired to learn cooking skills in the Army, said she did not expect to be assigned in or near a combat unit.  But due to Les Aspin’s 1994 rule changes, female enlistees are now being assigned to support missions known to involve a “substantial risk of capture.”  This policy is inconsistent with privacy rules that deny information about what happens to women if they are captured. 

We need brave women in the military, but no one’s daughter should have to suffer an ordeal comparable to that experienced by former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch—Not in the name of other women’s careers, men’s resentment of feminists, military necessity, or anything else. 

Clinton-era assignment rules remain in effect today.  Before the next major deployment begins, President George W. Bush should direct Pentagon leaders to find a way so that female soldiers can proudly serve their country without deliberate exposure to greater, unequal risk.  

If Defense Department officials cannot bring themselves to tell Americans the truth about women fighting our wars, perhaps they should not be sending female soldiers to serve in or near close combat units in the first place. 


This article, updated on this website on December 4, was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune Insight section on December 1, 2003.

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More background information and historic documents on this topic may be available in the 'Essential Resources' section of this website, or in a previous edition of CMR E-Notes, archived here.