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Context of 'June 29, 2003: Washington Post Ombudsman Theorizes that Jessica Lynch Story Was a Propaganda Effort by US Government'

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Still photo from Defense Department video of Lynch’s rescue.Still photo from Defense Department video of Lynch’s rescue. [Source: Associated Press]US Special Operations forces rescue captured Private Jessica Lynch from Saddam Hussein Hospital hospital near Nasiriyah (see March 23, 2003). According to the Pentagon, the rescue is a classic Special Forces raid, with US commandos in Black Hawk helicopters blasting their way through Iraqi resistance in and out of the medical compound. [Baltimore Sun, 11/11/2003] The Associated Press’s initial report is quite guarded, saying only that Lynch had been rescued. An Army spokesman “did not know whether Lynch had been wounded or when she might return to the United States.” [Project for Excellence in Journalism, 6/23/2003]
'Shooting Going In ... Shooting Going Out' - Subsequent accounts are far more detailed (see April 3, 2003). Military officials say that the rescue was mounted after securing intelligence from CIA operatives. A Special Forces unit of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and Air Force combat controllers “touched down in blacked-out conditions,” according to the Washington Post. Cover is provided by an AC-130 gunship circling overhead; a reconnaissance aircraft films the events of the rescue. One military official briefed on the operation says: “There was shooting going in, there was some shooting going out. It was not intensive. There was no shooting in the building, but it was hairy, because no one knew what to expect. When they got inside, I don’t think there was any resistance. It was fairly abandoned.” [Washington Post, 4/3/2003] CENTCOM spokesman General Vincent Brooks says he is not yet sure who Lynch’s captors were, but notes: “Clearly the regime had done this. It was regime forces that had been in there. Indications are they were paramilitaries, but we don’t know exactly who. They’d apparently moved most of them out before we arrived to get in, although, as I mentioned, there were buildings outside of the Saddam Hospital, where we received fire—or the assault force received fire—during the night.” [New York Times, 4/2/2003]
'Prototype Torture Chamber' - According to a military official, the Special Forces soldiers find what he calls a “prototype” Iraqi torture chamber in the hospital’s basement, equipped with batteries and metal prods. US Marines are patrolling Nasiriyah to engage whatever Iraqi forces may still be in the area. [Washington Post, 4/3/2003]
Secretive Intelligence Sources - CENTCOM officials refuse to discuss the intelligence that led them to Lynch and the 11 bodies. One official says, “We may need to use those intelligence sources and collection methods again.” [New York Times, 4/2/2003]
Pentagon's Story Almost Entirely Fictitious - Reporters are given a detailed briefing about the rescue, as well as copies of a video of the rescue shot by the soldiers as they performed the mission (see April 1, 2003). Subsequent interviews with Iraqi hospital staffers and nearby residents show that almost every aspect of the Pentagon’s story is fabrication (see May 4, 2003, May 23, 2003, May 25, 2003, and June 17, 2003).

Entity Tags: Associated Press, Washington Post, Jessica Lynch, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

For the first time, a major American news organization runs an article on Army Private Jessica Lynch that questions the initial versions of her capture and rescue (see April 1, 2003), though it places the story towards the very back of its main section, on page A17. The Washington Post’s lede compares the US military’s version to “a Hollywood script” with “Hollywood dazzle” and “little need for real action.” The story is based on interviews with Iraqi doctors who treated Lynch. One, Haitham Gizzy, says of the US military: “They made a big show. It was just a drama. A big, dramatic show.” Gizzy and others at the hospital say that Iraqi soldiers and guerrilla fighters had fled the hospital the night before the US launched its rescue attempt. According to Mokhdad Abd Hassan, a hospital staffer, most of the fighters in the area, and the entire Ba’ath Party leadership, including the governor of the province, came to the hospital earlier that day, changed into civilian clothes, and fled. “They brought their civilian wear with them,” Hassan says. Pointing to green army uniforms still piled on the lawn, he says: “You can see their military suits. They all ran away, the same day.” Gizzy adds: “It was all the leadership. Even the governor and the director general of the Ba’ath Party.… They left walking, barefoot, in civilian wear.… [I]t look like an organized manner” of retreat. When the US rescue team arrived, Gizzy says: “there were no soldiers at our hospital, just the medical staff. There were just us doctors.” Like US doctors currently treating Lynch (see April 4, 2003), Gizzy says Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed, as initial accounts stated (see April 3, 2003). “It was a road traffic accident” that caused her wounds, Gizzy says. “There was not a drop of blood.… There were no bullets or shrapnel or anything like that.” At the hospital, he says, “She was given special care, more than the Iraqi patients.” [Washington Post, 4/15/2003] Subsequent media accounts will begin backing off of the claims of multiple gunshot wounds. [Project for Excellence in Journalism, 6/23/2003] Post ombudsman Michael Getler, who will write highly critical analyses of the newspaper’s coverage of the Lynch story (see May 25, 2003 and June 29, 2003), later notes that while the Post deserves recognition that it was one of the first media outlets to interview the Iraqi doctors and tell their side of the story, the newspaper chose to print this story “way back in the paper.” Since it “was based on Iraqi sources” and buried so deep in the paper, “it didn’t get the attention that it otherwise might have gotten.” He adds, “I think in general, the press was quite slow to try and go back on this story which seemed fishy, almost from the start.” [Democracy Now!, 7/23/2003]

Entity Tags: Mokhdad Abd Hassan, Jessica Lynch, Haitham Gizzy, Washington Post, Michael Getler

Timeline Tags: US Military, Domestic Propaganda

IKONOS satellite image of Saddam Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah.IKONOS satellite image of Saddam Hussein Hospital in Nasiriyah. [Source: GlobalSecurity.org]Toronto Star bureau chief Mitch Potter reports a very different version of events surrounding the capture and hospitalization of Army Private Jessica Lynch (see March 23, 2003). Whereas US military officials have claimed that Special Forces rescued her in a dramatic battle with Iraqi resistance forces (see April 1, 2003), Potter finds that Iraqi soldiers had actually left the hospital two days before the rescue. In fact, Iraqi doctors had attempted to return Lynch to US units once before, but were fired on by US forces and forced to return to the hospital. [Baltimore Sun, 11/11/2003]
Shootout Never Happened - Potter calls the story of Lynch’s rescue a “flawless midnight rescue… in true Rambo style” that “rais[ed] America’s spirits when it needed it most. All Hollywood could ever hope to have in a movie was there in this extraordinary feat of rescue—except, perhaps, the truth.” Potter quotes three hospital doctors, two nurses, a hospital administrator, and several local residents, and presents a far different story than the one released by US officials. Dr. Harith al-Houssona says he came to consider Lynch a friend as he cared for her injuries. He says the story of the rescue is almost complete fiction: “The most important thing to know is that the Iraqi soldiers and commanders had left the hospital almost two days earlier. The night they left, a few of the senior medical staff tried to give Jessica back. We carefully moved her out of intensive care and into an ambulance and began to drive to the Americans, who were just one kilometer away. But when the ambulance got within 300 meters, they began to shoot. There wasn’t even a chance to tell them ‘We have Jessica. Take her.’”
Staged Rescue - On April 1, US Special Forces soldiers descended on the hospital. Hassam Hamoud, a waiter at a nearby restaurant, was approached by some of the soldiers. “They asked me if any troops were still in the hospital and I said, ‘No, they’re all gone,’” Hamoud recalls. “Then they asked about Uday Hussein, and again, I said ‘No.’ The translator seemed satisfied with my answers, but the soldiers were very nervous.” At midnight, the sound of helicopters circling the hospital’s upper floor prompted the staffers to take cover in the X-ray department, the only part of the hospital with no windows to the outside. The soldiers cut the power, then blew the locked doors and stormed inside. The staffers heard a male voice shout: “Go! Go! Go!” Seconds later, the door smashed open and a red laser targeting light found the forehead of the chief resident, Dr. Anmar Uday. “We were pretty frightened,” Uday recalls. “There were about 40 medical staff together in the X-ray department. Everyone expected the Americans to come that day because the city had fallen. But we didn’t expect them to blast through the doors like a Hollywood movie.” Another doctor, Mudhafer Raazk, noticed that two cameramen and a still photographer, all in uniform, accompanied the strike teams into the hospital. The tension quickly dropped after the soldiers realized no Iraqi fighters were in the building. A US medic was taken to Lynch’s room and the soldiers secured the hospital without incident. Several staffers and patients were immobilized with plastic handcuffs, including, al-Houssona recalls, one Iraqi civilian already motionless from abdominal wounds suffered in an earlier explosion. One group of soldiers ask about the bodies of missing US soldiers, and are led to a grave site opposite the hospital’s south wall. All were dead on arrival, the doctors say. After four hours, the soldiers departed, taking Lynch with them. Raazk says: “When they left, they turned to us and said ‘Thank you.’ That was it.” The staff went through the hospital to assess the damage: 12 doors were broken, a sterilized operating theater was contaminated, and Lynch’s bed, the hospital’s only specialized traction bed, was damaged beyond repair. “That was a special bed, the only one like it in the hospital, but we gave it to Jessica because she was developing a bed sore,” al-Houssona says.
'We All Became Friends' - Al-Houssona recalls that, far from ominous hints of torture and abuse, the hospital doctors and staff became friends with the injured American soldier. “We all became friends with her, we liked her so much,” he says. “Especially because we all speak a little English, we were able to assure her the whole time that there was no danger, that she would go home soon.” Though the hospital had an acute shortage of food, the staffers scrounged to find her extra juice and cookies. She was also assigned the most nurturing, motherly nurse on staff, Khalida Shinah. She has three daughters of her own, some close to Lynch’s age. Through a translator, Shinah recalls: “It was so scary for her. Not only was she badly hurt, but she was in a strange country. I felt more like a mother than a nurse. I told her again and again, Allah would watch over her. And many nights I sang her to sleep.” Houssana recalls Lynch being frightened in her first hours in the hospital. “Everybody was poking their head in the room to see her and she said ‘Do they want to hurt me?’ I told her, ‘Of course not. They’re just curious. They’ve never seen anyone like you before.’ But after a few days, she began to relax. And she really bonded with Khalida. She told me, ‘I’m going to take her back to America with me.”
No Gunshots or Stab Wounds - Far from suffering “multiple gunshot” and stab wounds detailed in previous Pentagon reports (see April 5, 2003), Lynch was suffering from injuries resulting from the wreck of her Humvee. Houssana believes she was hurt when she was thrown from the vehicle. “She was in pretty bad shape,” he recalls. “There was blunt trauma, resulting in compound fractures of the left femur and the right humerus. And also a deep laceration on her head. She took two pints of blood and we stabilized her. The cut required stitches to close. But the leg and arm injuries were more serious.” Lynch was only one casualty among many in the hospital, almost all suffered in the intense fighting around Nasiriyah. The hospital lists 400 dead and 2,000 wounded during the two weeks bracketing Lynch’s stay. Almost all were civilians, but Raazk does not blame the Americans alone for the carnage. “Many of those casualties were the fault of the fedayeen, who had been using people as shields and in some cases just shooting people who wouldn’t fight alongside them. It was horrible.” By March 30, Lynch had regained enough strength that the doctors were ready to operate on her badly broken left leg. She required a platinum plate on both ends of the compound fracture. The doctors were preparing similar surgery for her broken arm when the Americans rescued her. On April 4, an American military doctor visited the hospital. The doctors say he came to thank them for the superb surgery. “He was an older doctor with gray hair and he wore a military uniform,” Raazk recalls. “I told him he was very welcome, that it was our pleasure. And then I told him, ‘You do realize you could have just knocked on the door and we would have wheeled Jessica down to you, don’t you?’ He was shocked when I told him the real story. That’s when I realized this rescue probably didn’t happen for propaganda reasons. I think this American army is just such a huge machine, the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.”
Angered at Reports of Abuse - The US media’s reports that Lynch was abused and perhaps even tortured sadden and anger the hospital staffers. When Shinah is told of the reports, her eyes fill with tears. She composes herself and answers: “This is a lie. But why ask me? Why don’t you ask Jessica what kind of treatment she received?” That is not currently possible; the Pentagon is restricting access to Lynch as she continues to recuperate at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A spokesman says, “Until such time as she wants to talk—and that’s going to be no time soon, and it may be never at all—the press is simply going to have to wait.” [Toronto Star, 5/4/2003]

Entity Tags: Mitch Potter, Hassam Hamoud, Harith al-Houssona, Anmar Uday, Mudhafer Raazk, Jessica Lynch, Khalida Shinah

Timeline Tags: US Military, Domestic Propaganda

Michael Getler.Michael Getler. [Source: PBS]Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler joins his Post colleague Richard Cohen in admitting that the Post published a largely fictional account of the capture and rescue of Army Private Jessica Lynch (see May 23, 2003). Getler writes that one of the biggest problems journalists face is their increasing reliance on anonymous sources, such as the unnamed Pentagon officials who provided the fabrications used by two Post reporters to create the original Lynch story. Additionally, Getler worries that “intelligence information is being politicized and that reporters aren’t probing hard enough against the defenses of an administration with an effective, disciplined, and restrictive attitude toward information control.” The problem goes far beyond the fictional story of a single US Army private, Getler writes. The justifications for the invasion of Iraq—weapons of mass destruction and connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda—have not yet been confirmed. Many of those came from unnamed government officials. New allegations by unnamed officials point to hostile acts by Iran and Syria, and even to unfriendly acts by the US’s European ally, France, which led the opposition to the Iraq invasion. Whether those stories cite “intelligence officials,” “senior administration officials,” or others of what Getler calls “useless descriptions,” the upshot is the same: lurid, alarming, and potentially baseless allegations and stories are regularly making their way into print without anyone taking responsibility for them, or advancing incontrovertible proof of their veracity. The Post continues to be the primary source of the largely fictional account of Lynch’s capture and rescue. Getler pleads, “If there is a different version, or a confirming version, of this that is authoritative, I hope somebody will write it, along with a more probing account of her rescue.” [Washington Post, 5/25/2003]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, Jessica Lynch, Michael Getler, Richard Cohen, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

Jessica Lynch being carried from a transport plane to a hospital in Ramstein, Germany, April 2, 2003.Jessica Lynch being carried from a transport plane to a hospital in Ramstein, Germany, April 2, 2003. [Source: Associated Press / Baltimore Sun]The Washington Post publishes a much more exhaustively researched attempt at telling the accurate story of US Army Private Jessica Lynch’s capture, rescue, and subsequent recovery. The Post printed a dramatic tale of Lynch’s guns-blazing capture, her abuse at the hands of her captors, and the firefight that resulted in her rescue (see April 1, 2003). That story turned out to be almost entirely fictional, most likely a product of Pentagon propaganda (see May 4, 2003, May 23, 2003, and May 25, 2003). In a very different front-page story, it now attempts to tell the story directly and without embellishment.
Brief Propaganda Victory - The original story, featuring Lynch emptying her M-16 into her assailants until finally succumbing to multiple gunshot wounds, quickly made Lynch into what the Post calls “the story of the war, boosting morale at home and among the troops. It was irresistible and cinematic, the maintenance clerk turned woman-warrior from the hollows of West Virginia who just wouldn’t quit. Hollywood promised to make a movie and the media, too, were hungry for heroes.” That story was quickly exposed as a fraud. This Post story, its reporters assert, is far more extensively researched: “The Post interviewed dozens of people, including associates of Lynch’s family in West Virginia; Iraqi doctors, nurses and civilian witnesses in Nasiriyah; and U.S. intelligence and military officials in Washington, three of whom have knowledge of a weeks-long Army investigation into the matter. The result is a second, more thorough but inconclusive cut at history.” At least one similarity with the original story remains, the reporters acknowledge: most of the US officials who spoke to the reporters insisted that their identities not be revealed.
The Real Story of the Capture - According to military officials, Lynch indeed tried to fight her assailants, but her weapon jammed. She did not kill any Iraqis. She was neither shot nor stabbed. Her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, fell prey to an ambush outside Nasiriyah after getting lost. Army investigators believe that Lynch and her colleagues became lost because they were not informed that the column they had been following was rerouted. Lynch was riding in a Humvee when it crashed into a jackknified US truck. She was severely injured in the crash, including multiple broken bones and compression of the spine. The other four soldiers in the Humvee were killed or mortally wounded. She was captured by Iraqi guerrillas. In what may be a continuation of the government’s attempt to inflate the tale, two US officials familiar with the Army investigation say that Lynch was mistreated by her captors but refuse to give details.
Eyewitness Account - Sahib Khudher, an Iraqi farmer, saw a large US convoy of trucks, trailers, wreckers, and Humvees pass by his house before dawn on March 23. A few hours later, he saw trucks again pass his house, this time fighting off an ad hoc assault force of Iraqi irregulars in pickup trucks. The Iraqis were firing into the US vehicles and at their tires. “There was shooting, shooting everywhere,” Khudher recalls. “There were accidents, too. Crash sounds. You could see and hear the vehicles hitting each other. And yelling. Screaming. I could hear English.” Khudher was witnessing the tail end of the 507th Maintenance Company’s convoy, 18 Humvees, trailers, and tow trucks. Most of the soldiers were part of a Patriot missile maintenance crew.
Missed Route Change - The 507th missed a route change and quickly became separated from their larger 3rd Infantry unit. Because of truck breakdowns, 18 vehicles of the 507th split off from the rest of their convoy, and became entirely separated. Lynch was with these vehicles, which entered Nasiriyah around 6:30 a.m. Unfamiliar with the streets, the commander became lost, and eventually ordered the convoy to attempt to turn around and backtrack. By that point, around 7 a.m., the streets were filling with Iraqis, and the commander ordered the troops to lock and load their weapons.
Assault - As the convoy attempted to drive into central Nasiriyah, Iraqi forces launched an attack. The assailants were both uniformed soldiers and civilians, according to accounts by the American survivors of the assault. The attackers fired on the convoy with small arms, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. The situation worsened for the Americans when an Iraqi T-55 tank appeared, and the assailants positioned sandbags, debris, and cars to block the convoy’s path. The senior military officer later described the battle as “very harrowing, very intense.” Lynch may have been one of the soldiers returning fire, but she may not have gotten off a single round: “We don’t know how many rounds she got off,” says the official. “Her weapon jammed severely.” While details are unclear, it is believed that Lynch’s vehicle broke down, and she clambered into a soft-top Humvee driven by Private First Class Lori Piestewa, Lynch’s best friend in the unit. Another occupant, Master Sergeant Robert Dowdy, pulled two more soldiers into the Humvee. Lynch rode the transmission hump between the two seat. The senior military officer says that Dowdy was encouraging his four soldiers “to get into the fight” as well as “trying to get vehicles to move and getting soldiers out of one broken-down vehicle and into another.” The four soldiers in the Humvee “had their weapons at the ready and their seat belts off,” says the senior officer. “We assume they were firing back.” [Washington Post, 6/17/2003] (Lynch will later confirm that her weapon and others’ were jammed with sand and useless.) [Time, 11/9/2003]
Collision - During the firefight, a US tractor-trailer with a flatbed swerved around an Iraqi dump truck and jackknifed. As the Humvee sped towards the overturned tractor-trailer, it was struck on the driver’s side by a rocket-propelled grenade. Piestewa lost control of the Humvee and plowed into the trailer. The senior defense official calls the collision “catastrophic.” Dowdy was killed instantly, as were the two soldiers to either side of Lynch. Both she and Piestewa were severely injured. Lynch’s arm and both legs were crushed; bone fragments tore through her skin. Khudher recalls seeing a Humvee crash into a truck. Watching from a safe distance, he saw “two American women, one dark-skinned, one light-skinned, pulled from the Humvee. I think the light one was dead. The dark-skinned one was hurt.” The light-skinned woman was apparently Lynch. She and Piestewa, who was Native American, were both captured by Iraqi guerrillas.
Garbled, Contradictory Reports - Understandably, the reports of the ambush in the hours after the attack were garbled, contradictory, and confused. Arabic-speaking interpreters at the National Security Agency intercepted Iraqi transmissions referring to “an American female soldier with blond hair who was very brave and fought against them,” according to a senior military officer who read the top-secret intelligence report when it came in. Some of the Iraqis at the scene said she had emptied her weapon at her assailants. Over the next few days, numerous reports are received by the commanders at US CENTCOM in Doha, Qatar. Some of the reports are relayed Iraqi transmissions concerning a female soldier. The stories are contradictory. Some say she died in battle. Others say she was wounded by shrapnel. Others say she was shot and stabbed during the firefight. The only ones to receive these reports were generals, intelligence officers, and Washington policymakers, all of whom must be cleared to read the most sensitive information the US government possesses. The initial tale of Lynch’s “fight to the death” came from these high-level officials. [Washington Post, 6/17/2003] Another possible explanation later given forth was that the Army had intercepted Iraqi radio chatter about a yellow-haired soldier from Lynch’s unit who fought bravely before falling; that soldier was later identified as Sergeant Donald Walters. Interpreters had confused the Arabic pronouns for “he” and “she” and thought the radio transmissions were about Lynch. [New York Times, 12/14/2003]
Initial Treatment - Lynch and Piestewa were taken to a small military hospital in Nasiriyah, where both are initially treated for their wounds. That hospital is nothing more than a burned-out ruin today, but on the morning of Lynch’s captivity, it was the scene of frenzied activity, overwhelmed with Iraqi soldiers and irregulars fleeing, fighting, and bleeding from wounds. US soldiers were coming in from Kuwait in heavy numbers. The hospital’s director, Adnan Mushafafawi, remembers a policeman bringing in two female American soldiers about 10 a.m. Both were unconscious, he remembers, severely wounded and suffering from shock. According to their dog tags, they were Lynch and Piestewa. “Miss Lori had bruises all over her face,” he remembers. “She was bleeding from the eyes. A severe head wound.” Piestewa died soon after arriving at the hospital. Though Piestewa may have been shot, Mushafafawi says, Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed. Mushafafawi and medical staffers cut away Lynch’s uniform, lay her on a gurney and began working on her. She had major fractures of her arm and both legs, and a minor head wound. They sutured the head wound, and gave her blood and intravenous fluids. After X-raying her fractures, they applied splints and plaster casts. “If we had left her without treatment, she would have died,” Mushafafawi says. Lynch briefly regained consciousness during the treatment, but was disoriented. “She was very scared,” he says. “We reassured her that she would be safe now.” She resisted having Mushafafawi reset her leg, he remembers. Two or three hours later, Lynch was sent to Nasirayah’s main civilian facility, Saddam Hussein General Hospital. Mushafafawi believed at the time that his hospital would be attacked by US military forces (it was overrun two days later). He had both Lynch and Piestewa’s body sent to the civilian hospital. Mushafafawi says he does not know what happened to either of the soldiers between the time they were captured and when they were brought to his hospital.
Hospitalized - Lynch arrived at Saddam Hussein hospital that afternoon in a military ambulance. The doctors there were shocked to find a severely injured, nearly naked American woman, wearing heavy casts, beneath a sheet. Hospital officials say that during her time there, she was given the best possible care they could provide. They do not believe it was possible for Iraqi agents to have abused her while at the hospital. A member of Iraq’s intelligence service was posted outside the door to her room, but the staff never saw anyone mistreat her, nor did they see evidence of any mistreatment. Her condition was grave, the doctors and nurses recall, unconscious and obviously in shock. The hospital was overloaded with casualties and barely staffed; only a dozen doctors from a staff of 60 were on duty. Many nurses had not come to work either. The roads were unsafe, the electricity came and went, medical supplies were stretched thin, and casualties kept pouring in. “It was substandard care, by American standards, we know this, okay?” says Dr. Harith al-Houssona. “But Jessica got the best we could offer.” Lynch began to improve after several days of treatment. She was moved from the emergency room to an empty cardiac care unit, where she had her own room, and was tended to by two female nurses. She was in terrible pain, and was given powerful drugs. Though she was hungry, she was leery of the food being offered her, insisting that the food containers be opened in front of her before she would eat. Her mental state fluctuated. Sometimes she joked and smiled with her doctors and nurses, sometimes she would weep. “She didn’t want to be left alone and she didn’t want strangers to care for her,” Dr. Anmar Uday recalls. “One time, she asked me, ‘Why are you standing in front of me? Are you gong to hurt me?’ We said no, we’re here to help you.” Her primary nurse, Khalida Shinah, weeps herself when describing Lynch’s misery. Shinah recalls singing her to sleep and rubbing talc into her shoulders. Dr. Mahdi Khafaji, an orthopedic surgeon, says that there was more than mere sympathy and camaraderie responsible for the decision to give Lynch the best care they could. Everyone knew that the Americans would soon come for Lynch, he says, and “we wanted to show the Americans that we are human beings.… She was more important at that moment than Saddam Hussein.” Besides, he adds, “You could not help but feeling sorry for her. A young girl. An American. A prisoner. We did our best. Believe me, she was the only orthopedic surgery I performed.” The hospital staff were not the only ones interested in ensuring the Americans would be happy with Lynch’s treatment. At the time, the hospital had between 50 and 100 Iraqi fighters in or around the site at any one time, though the number steadily dwindled as US forces came ever closer. Senior Iraqi officials worked and lived out of the basement, clinics, and the doctors’ residence halls and offices. They all knew the Americans were coming, al-Houssona recalls, “and toward the end, they were most worried about saving themselves.”
Suspicious Wounds - Khafaji was suspicious of Lynch’s wounds. He had trouble believing they came from an auto accident, no matter how severe. The fractures were on both sides of her body, and there was no glass embedded in her wounds. US military sources believe most if not all the fractures could have been caused by the accident. Khafaji says, “[M]aybe a car accident, or maybe [her captors] broke her bones with rifle butts or by stomping on her legs. I don’t know. They know and Jessica knows. I can only guess.”
Interrogation - Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, a lawyer, says he learned about Lynch’s capture on March 27, when he went to visit his wife Iman, a nurse at the hospital. Al-Rehaief saw numerous Fedayeen in the “traditional black ninja-style uniforms that covered everything but their eyes,” as well as “high army officials there.” Al-Rehaief says one of his friends, a doctor, told him of Lynch. Curious, he peered through a glass panel into her room and, he says, “saw a large man in black looming over a bed that contained a small bandaged woman with blond hair.” The man wore epaulets on his shirt, indicating that he was a Fedayeen officer. Al-Rehaief recalls, “He appeared to be questioning the woman through a translator. Then I saw him slap her—first with the palm of his hand, then with the back of his hand.” After the Fedayeen officer left, al-Rehaief slipped into Lynch’s room and told her he would help. He left the hospital and sought out US soldiers, soon finding a group of US Marines. He told them about Lynch. (The Marines corroborate what they know of al-Rehaief’s story.) They sent him back to the hospital several times to map it out and routes in and out of the hospital. He also counts the number of Iraqi troops there.
Fabrication? - While the hospital doctors and staffers believe al-Rehaief did tell the Marines about Lynch, they dispute other portions of his story. There is no nurse named Iman at the hospital, they say, and no nurse married to a lawyer. “This is something we would know,” says one nurse. Al-Houssona believes little of al-Rehaief’s story. “Never happened,” he says. As for the Fedayeen slapping Lynch in her hospital bed, “That’s some Hollywood crap you’d tell the Americans.” Al-Houssona believes al-Rehaief embellished his story for his listeners. Al-Rehaief and his wife were taken to a military camp in Kuwait, and later received political asylum. He now lives in northern Virginia, where he is working on a book for HarperCollins and a television movie for NBC about his version of events (see April 10, 2003 and After).
Task Force 20 - The Special Operations unit given the assignment of rescuing Lynch, Task Force 20, is a covert Special Ops unit assigned the highest priority tasks. There was a larger reason than Lynch for that unit to be interested in the hospital: pre-mission briefings indicated that the hospital had been repeatedly visited by Ali Hassan Majeed, the infamous “Chemical Ali,” in recent days. Ground sources and images from Predator drones indicate that the hospital might be a military command post. There was every reason for Task Force 20 to go into the hospital heavily armed and taking full precautions, or as one Special Ops officer puts it, “loaded for bear.” A force of Marines, with tanks and armored personnel carriers, was ordered to mount a feint into Nasiriyah to draw off Iraqi forces near the hospital.
Rescue - Around 1 a.m. on April 1, commandos in blacked-out Black Hawk helicopters, protected by AC-130 gunships, entered the hospital grounds. Marines established an exterior perimeter, and Army Rangers set up a second perimeter just outside the hospital walls. These forces were fired upon from adjacent buildings, military sources say, though the fire was light. Commandos burst into the hospital, set off explosives meant to disorient anyone inside, and made for Lynch’s room. Uday says that the doctors and staffers fled to the X-ray room, where they might be more secure. Though the soldiers quickly burst into the X-ray room, no shots were fired and no resistance was offered. “It was like a ‘Rambo’ movie,” Uday recalls. “But we were not Rambo. We just waited to be told what to do.” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, who gave American reporters video footage of the rescue mission, says, “There was not a firefight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were firefights outside of the building, getting in and out.” The commandos found Lynch in a private bed, lying on the hospital’s only bed used to ease bedsores. A male nurse in a white jacket was with her. One of the soldiers called out, “Jessica Lynch, we’re the United States soldiers and we’re here to protect you and take you home.” She answered, “I’m an American soldier, too.” The commandos find “ammunition, mortars, maps, a terrain model and other things that make it very clear that it was being used as a military command post,” Brooks says. It is unclear if the hospital had indeed been used as any sort of military headquarters, but it is certain that the last of the Iraqi soldiers had fled the day before.
Recovering the Dead - The commandos retrieve two American bodies from the morgue. Staff members lead soldiers outside, where seven other soldiers were buried in shallow graves. They tell the soldiers that they buried the seven because the morgue’s faltering refrigeration couldn’t slow their decomposition. All nine bodies are from Lynch’s unit. Navy SEALs dug up the bodies with their hands, military officials say.
Propaganda Opportunity - Within hours of the rescue, a second contingent of US tanks and trucks rolled up to the hospital. They were not there to attack anyone. Instead, CENTCOM’s public affairs office in Qatar had seen an opportunity. “We wanted to make sure we got whatever visuals were available,” a public affairs officer involved in the operation recalls. The rescue force had photographed the rescue, and Special Forces had provided video footage of Iraqi border posts being obliterated to the news media. That video footage had received extensive airplay in the US. This, the public affairs officers think, could be much bigger. Lieutenant Colonel John Robinson, a CENTCOM public affairs officer, says, “We let them know, if possible we wanted to get it, we’d like to have” the video. “We were hoping we would have good visuals. We knew it would be the hottest thing of the day. There was not an intent to talk it down or embellish it because we didn’t need to. It was an awesome story.” The Lynch story, if properly presented, could be a boon to the military’s public relations. Stories of US troops bogged down on the way to Baghdad and killed by the dozens in vicious firefights could be erased from the news broadcasts by a feel-good story of heroism and camaraderie. According to one colonel who dealt with the media in the days after the rescue, the story “took on a life of its own. Reporters seem to be reporting on each other’s information. The rescue turned into a Hollywood concept.” No one at CENTCOM ever explains how the details of Lynch’s “heroic resistance,” “emptying her gun” into her assailants, and finally “falling from multiple gunshot wounds” were given to reporters. [Washington Post, 6/17/2003]

Entity Tags: Ali Hassan Majeed, Jessica Lynch, Adnan Mushafafawi, Anmar Uday, Harith al-Houssona, John Robinson, Donald Walters, Khalida Shinah, Al Jazeera, Vincent Brooks, Robert Dowdy, Washington Post, Lori Piestewa, Sahib Khudher, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, US Central Command, US Department of Defense, Task Force 20

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler writes another mea culpa admitting the Post’s central role in promoting the Pentagon’s propaganda story of the Jessica Lynch capture and rescue (see April 1, 2003 and May 25, 2003). Getler writes that the issue is not Lynch, whose courage is unquestionable, but how the Post and other news providers are systematically manipulated by outside sources with their own agendas, and how these news outlets sometimes enthusiastically cooperate with such manipulation. The Lynch story as originally reported in the Post has been supplanted by a second, more thorough piece (see June 17, 2003) that Getler calls “a corrective to the initial reporting.” Getler notes that the “corrective” account does not address the more fundamental questions of why that first story “remain[ed] unchallenged for so long,” who provided the false information that generated that story, and why reporters simply accepted that account as fact instead of doing their own investigations. “The story had an odor to it almost from the beginning,” Getler writes, “and other news organizations blew holes in it well before the Post did, though not as authoritatively,” apparently referring to articles such as a May 4 piece by the Toronto Star (see May 4, 2003). Was the first version a government attempt to manipulate the news media? Getler asks. He also wants to know why Lynch’s fellow soldiers, including those captured and held as POWs (see October 24, 2003), have not spoken about Lynch. “Certainly, Lynch’s privacy about her ordeal needs to be protected,” he writes. “But the official curtain of silence has extended to everything about the incident from the start. Why?” Getler concludes: “This was the single most memorable story of the war, and it had huge propaganda value. It was false, but it didn’t get knocked down until it didn’t matter quite so much.” [Washington Post, 6/29/2003]

Entity Tags: Washington Post, Jessica Lynch, Michael Getler

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

A frightened Shoshana Johnson, photographed by her captors an hour after she was shot and captured by Iraqi fighters.A frightened Shoshana Johnson, photographed by her captors an hour after she was shot and captured by Iraqi fighters. [Source: Al-Jazeera / CNN]Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson, captured in the same Iraqi assault that ended in the captivity and eventual rescue of Private Jessica Lynch (see June 17, 2003), has faced a very different ordeal than her more famous comrade. Johnson was held captive for 22 days before being released. During her captivity, she was shot in both legs. She still suffers from severe physical and emotional trauma. She has not spoken out while Lynch became the focus of so much media attention, but she now feels she must: the Army has informed her that she will receive only a 30 percent disability benefit for her injuries. Lynch will receive an 80 percent disability benefit. Johnson is African American; Lynch is Caucasian. The difference amounts to between $600-$700 per month, a significant amount for Johnson, who is raising a three-year-old daughter. Johnson’s family has enlisted the help of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson to help make their case in the national press. Jackson says the discrepancy implies that a racial double standard is at work in the two women’s cases. “Here’s a case of two women, same [unit], same war; everything about their service commitment and their risk is equal,” Jackson says. “Yet there’s an enormous contrast between how the military has handled these two cases.” Philadelphia radio host Mary Mason says more bluntly: “Shoshana is getting the shaft, and people are outraged about it. It’s ridiculous, and complete racism.” Some have speculated that the difference in race and appearance—Lynch, a winsome, tiny blonde, is acknowledged to be quite photogenic, while Johnson is darker and heavier-featured—may have played a role in the selection of Lynch over Johnson to gain such heavy media coverage. Johnson’s father Claude, an Army veteran, says neither Shoshana nor the family begrudge Lynch her disability. They just believe that the benefits should be more equal. Lynch says she and Johnson are friends, and she hopes Johnson receives every benefit due her. The Army denies any bias, and says its decision on benefits is made according to a soldier’s injuries. Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, an African American, says she won’t watch the NBC movie about Lynch’s ordeal (see November 10, 2003). “Jessica’s story is a compelling story, but so is Shoshana’s,” she says. “My reason for not tuning in is simple: I am tired of the double standard.” [Black Entertainment Television, 10/24/2003; Boston Globe, 11/9/2003] Johnson’s benefits will later be revised upwards (see March 18, 2008).

Entity Tags: Jesse Jackson, Jessica Lynch, Mary Mason, Shoshana Johnson, Claude Johnson, Donna Brazile

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

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