Saving the true Jessica Lynch

Times Staff Writer

As she lay swathed in bandages, bracing for months of physical rehabilitation, Jessica Lynch learned that she faced yet another kind of therapy: A stranger would soon begin asking questions about her ordeal as an American prisoner of war in Iraq, and together they would have barely 10 weeks to produce a book.

Author Rick Bragg stood by Lynch's hospital bed last summer, asking her to revisit the bloody ambush that killed 11 of her comrades. When she was learning to walk on crutches, he waited for the right moment to gingerly ask about unspeakable horrors, including the likelihood that she had been sexually assaulted while in Iraqi captivity.

They worked long hours, weeks at a time, to tell a painful story. And in the process, Lynch said, she's come to terms with the enormity of what happened to her.

"I am not a hero, I'm a survivor and that's what I needed to tell people in my book," Lynch said this week, relaxing in a dressing room after appearing on NBC's "Today" show to promote the just-published "I Am a Soldier, Too."

"A book," she added, "is something I can control."

Control is important to Jessica Lynch, who has been caught up in a media frenzy ever since her March 23 capture near Nasiriyah. Initially portrayed as a hero who went down with guns blazing, she has lately been criticized as a public-relations pawn of the Bush administration. Neither public image is remotely true, Lynch says, adding that the reality of who she is has been utterly lost in the media chatter.

Leery of TV treatments, Lynch's family passed on more lucrative offers from several networks and settled on a $1-million book deal to tell her story. Bragg, who will split the advance with Lynch, was the family's first choice to write the book. He sits quietly next to Lynch in the NBC dressing room and notes that "I Am a Soldier, Too" (Knopf) presented special challenges.

"Jessie's story was simple to tell, pretty straightforward," he says. "But we had to get to know each other, to really trust each other. There were times when I asked her about things that were just too painful to talk about. It made me feel like dirt."

Lynch gives him a playful punch in the shoulder and says: "You didn't get too personal. It worked out OK. But there were some things that were tough to talk about."

Like the death of her best friend, Lori Piestawa, who was behind the wheel of their Humvee when it crashed into a truck in Nasiriyah. Or the fact that because of her spinal injuries she may never regain full control over her bowels and kidneys.

Lynch does not remember the three hours between her capture and waking up in an Iraqi hospital -- the time American doctors believe she was assaulted, based on medical records. Bragg says some of these memories are buried in a private place, but remembers telling other family members that they would have to be open about their feelings -- almost like getting naked in front of a stranger.

They are an odd literary couple. Lynch, a frail and petite woman who still uses crutches to get around, is dwarfed by Bragg, a 260-pound bear of a man who hovers over her protectively. He calls her "junior," making fun of his 20-year-old partner; she calls him "stupid," an uppity youngster making fun of a hopelessly uncool older guy.

Ask Lynch how she feels and she'll give a clipped answer. Her voice rarely betrays any emotion and her pale green eyes, twinkling one moment, look distant the next. Ask Bragg, and a torrent of words gushes forth.

The book features both voices, in about the same proportion. Bragg uncorks long, narrative passages and sprinkles in terse comments ("They were killing us, they were everywhere") from Lynch. Based on interviews with her and her family, it is an interpretive account, written largely from Lynch's perspective. It is not intended, Bragg said, to be the definitive story of the ambush.

He describes Piestawa's demeanor as the unit came under fire: "She handled the steering wheel like she was going to the mall and her kids were screaming in the backseat, a long way from panicked, or at least that was how it looked. She maneuvered past soldiers and militia who were trying to kill them, around the debris and dead vehicles, and somehow every bullet missed or whanged off their Humvee."

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The same language

Words have been a blessing and a curse to Bragg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times coverage of the American South. Earlier this year, he was suspended by the paper -- and then resigned -- amid disclosures that he had written a vivid story about Florida fishermen based heavily on the uncredited reporting of an intern.

"Outside of some newsrooms, people don't care about that in the wider world," Knopf publicity chief Paul Bogaards said. "We care about the book, and with these two people I think we've found the perfect match. They have a lot in common."

Both Lynch and Bragg hail from rural America, and they speak the same language, Bogaards explained. More important, he said, Bragg's two best-selling books about his Alabama family, "All Over but the Shoutin' " and "Ava's Man," convinced Jessica and her family to choose him for the project. The two hit it off instantly and Bragg spent many hours with Jessica, her family and friends, first at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., and later in her hometown of Elizabeth, W.Va.

"I gained 15 pounds when I stayed at her family's home," he said, recalling the skillets of fried potatoes, bacon, cheese and eggs that began each morning. "I couldn't turn that kind of hospitality down -- not if I wanted to finish the book on time."

Lynch and her family say they will donate part of the book fee to charity. Knopf has rushed 500,000 copies into print and an ambitious publicity campaign this week features appearances on ABC's "Primetime," NBC's "Today," CNN's "Larry King Live" and CBS' "The Late Show With David Letterman."

Though early critical reaction has been mixed, it is too soon to tell if "I Am a Soldier, Too" will catch fire with readers. It tells of a plain-spoken 19-year-old who joined the Army to get a better paycheck and see the world. She deployed for Iraq with understandable fears, yet believed that she had a duty to her country. Lynch came home physically and emotionally shattered.

"I wanted to tell the truth, as it applies to me," she said, wearily discounting differing images of her that have played out in the media. "You know, real facts."

Lynch ticks off the list: She did not fire her gun at Iraqis, because her M-16 rifle jammed as their unit came under fire. She was not slapped by soldiers in the Iraqi hospitals where she was kept for nine days, contrary to an NBC television movie.

She believes the special forces who rescued her had every reason to come in with a great show of force, because they had no way of knowing that Iraqi troops had abandoned the hospital hours before. But she's troubled that the rescue was videotaped and later used for public-relations purposes by the U.S. military.

Beyond the book, she's declined to comment on Hustler publisher Larry Flynt's assertion that he has acquired -- but decided not to run -- topless photos taken of Lynch before going to Iraq. Earlier, Bogaards said the story was "abhorrent" and "reprehensible." It was clear Lynch would not discuss it.

Lynch looks fatigued as the interview goes on, periodically fussing with her blond hair in the mirror and holding back yawns. She raises the leg of her jeans to show a right leg still fortified by heavy metal braces, and has little feeling in her feet. Still, there's an unmistakable determination in her -- a belief that she will overcome these injuries.

"I want to go to college soon, but first I have to be able to walk normally," Lynch said. "I need to take things one step at a time, and I can't really rush things."

Fresh out of high school in 2001, Lynch joined the Army to broaden herself, and that remains one of her chief goals. She's never seen a beach and wants to visit California. She talks vaguely about "getting out" and leaving her West Virginia home when she marries her fiance, Sgt. Ruben Contreras, whom she met in the Army.

For now, Lynch says she has a week or so of additional book interviews to get through, and then, she hopes, a time to rest. She's grateful for the attention that she has received but makes no secret of the fact that she would like her privacy back.

"You know, I'm just a regular 20-year-old and I'm ready to get back to a normal life," she says softly. "I want all this to be over. I'm ready to disappear."

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