Since U.S. Army Private Lori Ann Piestewa died in a Humvee ambush in Iraq in 2003, her name—and her legacy—have spread throughout the three mesas of Hopi land in northeastern Arizona.
The first American Indian woman to die serving the U.S. Armed Forces, in the first war that allowed women to risk their lives on the front lines, Piestewa has become synonymous with patriotic Native American sacrifice. In 2008, a prominent Phoenix mountain was named in her honor. So was an education initiative for Hopi children and an annual motorcycle ride for fallen soldiers that traverses the Mountain West. Then there are the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games, which bring more than 10,000 Native Americans from 50-plus tribes to her home state of Arizona each year for a multi-day sports competition, the biggest such event of its kind—and a fitting tribute to her athleticism and competitive spirit.
But to Private Jessica Lynch, a fellow soldier caught in the same harrowing skirmish—the very same Humvee—Piestewa is more than just a symbol of heroism.
She’s a best friend lost.
“We did everything together,” says Lynch. “We went by Lynch and Pie… People would say, ‘if you’re looking for Lynch, just find Pie.’ It was an instant connection.”
Piestawa and Jessica Lynch: An Unlikely Pair
Before the two women met at their shared U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, no one expected it to work. Fellow soldiers were alerting Lynch about the tough hand she’d been dealt, getting lumped together with such a disagreeable roommate. It was February of 2002: Piestewa had been on base for several months, and a vacancy in her room coincided with Lynch’s arrival.
“When I first got there, everybody warned me. They said, ‘Oh no, you got Lori.’” Lynch recalls. “Everyone told me she was very hard-core.”
Piestewa, then 23 years old, cut an imposing figure. Hailing from the small Hopi community of Moenkopi, Arizona and raised in nearby Tuba City of the Navajo Nation, she put forth a “tough exterior,” says Lynch.
But being “tough” isn’t the same thing as being uncaring. And according to Lori’s mother, Percy Piestewa, anyone who knew Lori knew about her other side: how she was always ready with a helping hand, especially for those who needed it most. Even as a young child, Lori would regularly try to adopt strays from the street.
“She used to bring all these animals home, and she would say, ‘Oh, mom, can I keep this dog? It followed me home.’ And she'd be pulling it on a rope or a piece of string.”
Percy Piestewa says it was part of a culture where everyone took care of everybody else. “We all adopted each other's kids,” Percy Piestewa says. “You learn to be kind to one another...to remember to love your neighbor as you would want them to love you. And she pretty well carried that her whole life.”
As for Lori Piestewa’s assertiveness—her “hard-core” quality that made her intimidating to some in the unit? Well, that came from her upbringing, too, says Professor Matthew Gilbert, a Hopi tribe member and historian at the University of Illinois.
The Hopi Lineage
Hopi tribes are traditionally matrilineal—passing not only their names, but their land rights, down the mother’s side. Hopi women also participate in important leadership groups, an approach to gender roles that “goes against…this Western Christian concept of how women should conduct themselves in society,” says Gilbert.
Despite their cultural and personality differences, Lynch and Piestawa bonded. They began shopping together at the local mall, watching endless reruns of “Friends,” spending time with Piestewa’s young children.
Lynch and Pie served in the 507th Maintenance Company, a support unit designated to transporting water, haul supplies and provide non-combative help to combat units.
Neither would ever fire a shot.
That Piestewa would lose her life serving in a nonviolent unit also aligns with Hopi history and Hopi values, Gilbert says: “Generally speaking, the Hopi have tried to employ the concept of non-confrontation and nonviolence.” In precolonial times, that meant avoiding war with neighboring tribes. Although there were occasional skirmishes with the Navajo and Utes, protracted internecine conflict never took place.
When American forces expanded west in the 19th century, the Hopi again found a way to maintain peace. Unlike other tribes whose land had gold or oil, Hopis inhabited a stretch of Arizona’s arid northeast with little face value to the federal government. As such, no attempt was made to seize it. The Hopi, likewise, never attempted to engage with the interloping troops and again avoided war.
As a result, the Hopi are one of very few American tribes whose reservation sits on their ancestral homelands.
Since the dawn of the 20th century, the tribe has had a complex, ambivalent relationship with the United States military. Some Hopi tribespeople helped serve in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, working as “code talkers,” a non-combative role in which they transmitted secret messages through their language, a code the Japanese found impenetrable. But Hopi loyalty to American war efforts was not without its limits: In 1950, tribal leaders demanded that President Harry Truman stop drafting Hopi youth into the Korean War, declaring in an open letter that “we have no right to be fighting other people in other lands who have caused us no harm.”
Pioneering Women in War
It was a historical and cultural backbone completely different from Lynch’s, a quiet-mannered 18-year-old "little white girl from West Virginia.”
“We had nothing in common,” she says.
But while the two lacked a common background, they shared a historical moment: Women’s role in the armed forces were changing.
On March 20, 2003, President George W. Bush announced U.S. forces have begun a military operation into Iraq. Piestewa, Lynch and the rest of the 507th left Kuwait and moved overland into Iraq, working in support of the 3rd Infantry Division from Kuwait—a procession of more than 600 vehicles.
Ten years prior, the pair wouldn’t have even been allowed in that unit. But in 1994, the Department of Defense eliminated its “Risk Rule,” a measure that had prohibited women from being part of military units at risk of entering into combat. The Iraq War (and the concurrent war in Afghanistan) would put the gender-integrated military to the test. By the time the 507th Maintenance Company was deployed in March 2003, women made up 11% of the Armed Forces. Piestewa and Lynch were pioneers.
The military strategy rested on an immediate, overwhelming first strike, one that would demoralize the enemy (known as “Shock and Awe”).
A Missed Turn Becomes Fatal
At the start of the mission, Piestewa and Lynch were in separate vehicles. That quickly changed.
“I was driving a five-ton water buffalo—which is just a water tank attached to the back—and my transfer case busted,” explains Lynch. “Lori was the one that pulled up beside me. So I jumped in.”
They drove for days, but “about 20 vehicles” fell behind—heavier maintenance vehicles that were unable to keep up with a lighter combat fleet that raced ahead.
“We kept getting bogged down,” says Lynch. “Our vehicle just kept getting stuck in the sand. We spent so much time digging ourselves out of the sand pits. And we kept getting left behind. And the more that this happened, the further and further we were literally left in the desert. At this point we couldn’t see any of the sand flying up. We couldn’t see any tail lights.”
Their first night they camped out in the desert.
“She had a feather stuck inside her uniform,” Lynch says. “To protect her.”
Then, in the pre-dawn hours of March 23, leadership made a crucial navigational error, missing an exit that would’ve switched them from one highway (Route Blue) to another (Route Jackson). Instead, they crossed the Euphrates River, entering the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
There were six in Piestewa’s Humvee: the two roommates from Fort Bliss; Specialist Shoshana Johnson, another member of the maintenance company; their sergeant; and two Marines.
“We ended up driving through the city,” Lynch says. “We could really see that Iraqis were coming outside. They were hiding on rooftops. Some were even taking positions in ditches, or behind vehicles. We saw that they were carrying weapons. That’s the point that we knew we were in trouble.”
Sensing peril, their commander Capt. Troy King made the decision to turn the convoy around and leave the city. But as they doubled back, they were fired upon. Piestewa and Lynch’s Humvee—stuck in the back of the convoy—was particularly susceptible to the ambush.
Through it all, Lynch says, Piestewa kept cool.
“She was great, actually,” says Lynch. “Honestly I was not too worried. I had a peace—this calming feeling—because I was with Lori. I knew that whatever we had to face, we were going to do it together. She drove us through flying bullets. At one point, I remember a bullet whizzing through the window…and she remained under control.”
Piestewa’s calm was heroic, but the firepower of the ambush proved overwhelming. Most of the soldiers in the Humvee found their firearms malfunctioning, Lynch says, preventing the vehicle’s occupants from defending themselves with return fire. Their ill-fated escape was finally derailed by a rocket-propelled grenade, which struck the Humvee on the right side and sent it careening into the back of an eighteen-wheeler.
The sergeant and the two marines died on the spot; Piestawa, taken to a hospital in the city, died from her wounds shortly thereafter.
Percy Piestewa says that the pain of losing Lori has never gone away, but that she’s grateful for the 23 years of life her daughter had.
“We feel that Lori's purpose on this Earth was to bring people together in peace and unity,” she says. “That is her legacy.”
All told, nine U.S. soldiers died in the ambush.
The other two—Lynch and Johnson—were taken prisoners of war. When they were rescued from the hospital by U.S. Marines the following month, the story drew national attention, and Lynch was hailed as a hero. But she’s quick to defer that honor to her fallen roommate.
“I think about her every day,” Lynch says, adding that she will regularly share stories about her fallen friend to her daughter, Dakota Ann. “I’m just trying to keep her memory alive. I feel like she’s near, watching over me.”