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On war's receiving end

Since their daughter died beside Jessica Lynch, the Piestewas have been blessed with a new home and more. But `we'd give it all back,' they say.

March 23, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Flagstaff, Ariz. — FOUR years later, the grieving parents are doing OK. Better than OK. They cruise through most days upbeat -- determinedly grateful for all the good things given them since the worst day of their lives.

They've received a pat on the back from the president. They've been given, free and clear, a new home on 5 1/2 acres, a mini-palace of stone and clay, which they've filled with gifts of paintings and statues and prayer quilts and hand-woven rugs. A veritable museum of tributes.

But every so often, amid the blessings, a memory sneaks up, and Terry and Percy Piestewa find themselves weeping as in those first days after learning their daughter Lori -- their youngest -- had been killed, one of the first American deaths of the Iraq war. In those moments the gifts count for nothing.

"We'd give it all back in a split-second," Terry says, his eyes glassy.

This is life four years after the fact: as surreal as ever, alternating between nightmare and fantasy, a constant remembering that things will never be as they once were. The years have passed like days, Terry says, and sometimes it seems like only yesterday when they heard the fateful knock on the door.

Lori Piestewa (pie-YES-tuh-wah) was 23, a private first class in the 507th Army Maintenance Company, when the Humvee she was driving was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on March 23, 2003, the fourth day of the war. She was captured and soon after died of her injuries.

Lori, a 5-foot ball of verve known by fellow soldiers as "Pi," was the first American woman killed in the war. A member of the Hopi tribe, she's best known for her supporting role in the saga of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who rode in the same Humvee. Lynch survived, and her rescue was later dramatized in a book and movie.

Lori's body was flown home and buried in an unmarked grave (in Hopi culture, the dead are buried in secret). The gravesite was covered by a mound of flagstone in a desolate corner of the Hopi reservation just outside Tuba City, 75 miles north of here and just a few minutes from the trailer park where she grew up. A single mother, Lori left behind two young children, Brandon and Carla, now in the care of her parents.

The family drives to Lori's grave every month or so, clears the weeds and replaces the U.S. flag planted nearby. The desert wind tears the cloth to pieces.

On a recent sunny day, Terry rattles around the house, waiting for Percy to come home with "the babies." Terry, 63, is short and stout and is full-blooded Hopi. His easy smile seems incongruous to his bloodshot eyes, which reflect hard living and bad health; he lives with diabetes, a stuttering heart and blood pressure as high as the home's 12-foot ceilings.

The couple, retired after more than three decades working for the same reservation school district -- she as an administrative assistant, he as a bus driver and maintenance man -- have arranged their lives around their new wards. They raised four of their own children and find themselves, in the last third of their lives, unexpectedly raising Lori's.

The children's father, an itinerant welder, appears occasionally; he remarried and started a new family.

The kids come tumbling through the front door. Brandon, 8, rolls in like a boulder, 165 pounds and size 10 feet. Carla, 7, flits in like a spark, 38 pounds and zipping from here to there, chattering as fast as she runs.

"Meet the Gentle Giant and Thumbelina!" says Percy, 59, ambling behind them. She is dressed in black with a yellow "Support Our Troops" ribbon pinned to her blouse. She radiates good cheer. Later she confides it's because of her nature and because she must. She and her husband don't have the luxury to be bitter.

"We need to take care of the babies," Percy says. "The babies need us."

THE house. They must tell you about the house because more than anything it represents how strange the dream has been and how different life has become. Because the house, as they see it, is a gift from Lori.

"It was Lori's vision for us," says Percy, who with Terry has settled around the marble-topped island in the kitchen. Percy sips tea, Terry coffee. The couple have been together for 44 years. Photographs lie scattered on the counter.

Nearby, at the dining table, Brandon does homework, listening in on the conversation and occasionally glancing in the direction of the photographs. Carla is in the family room practicing "Down in the Valley" on the piano.

Monday is piano and gymnastics for Carla, taekwondo for Brandon. For much of each day, Terry and Percy act as tag-team chauffeurs, at the moment catching a breath between car rides. They gaze at a picture of Lori and Lynch, standing side by side at Ft. Bliss, Texas, where the two were roommates before they were deployed to Iraq. "Pi and Lynch," they were called. "Lynch and Pi." Two peas. Inseparable.

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