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Saving the true Jessica Lynch

With writer Rick Bragg, the soldier sets about reclaiming her story.

November 14, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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."

*

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."

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