(PARKERSBURG, W.Va.) — Jessica Lynch has made her peace over the years with being in the spotlight, so she doesn’t mind that it shines brightly on her Friday as the former POW graduates from college with a degree in elementary education.
In the audience is her daughter, Dakota Ann, 5 — living memory of Lynch’s friend, Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestawa, 23, who was killed along with 10 other soldiers in the March 23, 2003, attack in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in which Lynch was captured. The name Dakota honors Piestawa’s Native American heritage.
Lynch was only 18 when she joined the Army from the tiny town of Palestine, W.V., and only 19 when the truck she was driving came under attack after it took a wrong turn into enemy territory in Iraq. She still has damaged legs and a painful foot — injuries she apparently suffered when the Humvee crashed — but that won’t stop her from accepting her diploma from West Virginia University in Parkersburg.
Lynch , now 28, became America’s darling when U.S. forces rescued her from a hospital in Iraq and the U.S. government — displaying footage of her being carried out on a stretcher — portrayed her as a fearless heroine who had gone down fighting. In fact, as she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in a searing 2003 interview, her weapon jammed and “I did not shoot … not a round.”
“Did you go down like somebody said, Rambo?” Sawyer asked.
“No. No. I went down, praying to my knees. And then, that’s the last I remember,” Lynch replied.
She told the reality of her wartime experience in a book “I Am a Soldier Too,” written with journalist Rick Bragg.
Her truthfulness sparked a lot of hate mail, but she has refused to hide away — making public appearances to speak to veteran’s groups and kids and raising money for her charity, Jessi’s Pals.
She lives in her home state with Dakota’s dad, Wes Robinson, and is still in regular touch with another of the captured POWs, cook Shoshana Johnson, 38, of El Paso, Texas.
Johnson, who was shot in both legs in the attack, still has pain, but she told ABC: “Considering that other soldiers got missing limbs, I’m doing OK. They still work, I can still stand on them.”
The country’s first black female POW, she has never been in the limelight to the degree Lynch has been. “I still got to pay the mortgage, make the car payment. I’m not Kim Kardashian,” she says. “Every once in a while I do get a speaking engagement and that affords me certain luxuries for my daughter,” Jenelle, 12.
She completed studies in culinary arts in May and now is studying health science with a culinary concentration at the University of Texas at El Paso. Johnson battles depression and PTSD and says: I hope to be ‘normal,’ but it’s a work in progress. Just because we leave Iraq physically, some of us are still mentally there.”
She is in contact with all the former POWs, especially Lynch, and also keeps in close touch with Melissa Coleman, who spent 33 days in captivity during the Gulf War in 1991.
“There are very few people who understand what it was like for me. My fellow POWs are those individuals. I can tell them anything and they understand,” Johnson said. “My connection to them keeps me more grounded.”
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Lorenzo Ferrigno and David Shortell, CNN
Sarah Stewart, KFOR