Veterans Day is a week away. So the National Women Veterans United (NWVU) group celebrated contributions and stories of women veterans. Keynoting their event at the Sgt. Simone A. Robinson Military Women Veteran’s Center was former U.S. Soldier and POW Jessica Lynch.
Eighteen years after she was captured by Iraqi forces on March 23, 2003 — at age 19, becoming the first American prisoner of war and first woman to be rescued since World War II — former U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch still wrestles with post traumatic stress disorder.
Today, the 38-year-old elementary school teacher in West Virginia, who became a household name after the incident four months into the Iraq War, has learned to cope with both the physical and mental scars, just as all veterans do, she told veterans here Saturday.
“It’s the courage and the strength we all have inside of us to be able to continue to persevere, to just continue one more day,” said the woman whose April 1, 2003, rescue was filmed and beamed around the world in a keynote before the National Women Veterans United (NWVU) organization, at Sgt. Simone A. Robinson Military Women Veteran’s Center.
“It’s inside of us. But we just have to be able to find and bring it out, because at 19 years old, and just 76 pounds when they rescued me — I didn’t eat, I wasn’t given that — I didn’t think that I was going to make it,” she said. “I really didn’t think that I was going to make it.”
Lynch had been invited to speak at the center in Ashburn, the only veterans center in Illinois devoted to aiding women in the military — named for a Black soldier who served in the Afghanistan War, killed by an improvised explosive device detonated near her security post.
Many of the women veterans gathered at the center identified with that post-service trauma as they shared their own stories of service to their country, and resilience in the face of physical injuries or the struggle to break gender and race barriers.
“Just before Jessica came in, we just didn’t have females in those positions. The draft went away in ‘74, and without men to fill those lower ranks, women started coming in. After 9/11 was when they started sending them out into the field, and they were vulnerable,” said Retired Army Col. Constance Edwards, 77, of Frankfort, a Vietnam War veteran.
Edwards was the third Black woman to reach the rank of Army colonel here in Illinois.
Also attending the event was Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, chair of the Illinois Council on Women and Girls, as well as the Military Economic Development Committee.
“Fourteen years ago, our distinguished guest testified before Congress and exhibited, yet again, her unwavering bravery. Jessica told the nation: ‘I had a story that needed to be told so that people would know the truth,’” said Stratton, referring to Lynch’s historic testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on April 24, 2007.
Lynch unveiled misinformation surrounding her capture and rescue — saying she’d been portrayed as a “little girl Rambo” who fought her captors, when she’d been unconscious.
“Jessica’s commitment to do the right thing every step of the way, to stand for truth and service, is what heroes are made of. Jessica stood up to tell her story, but how many other women veterans have gone unheard?” said Stratton.
The U.S. Army private with the 507th Maintenance Company had landed on the ground just three days before her convoy was ambushed; 11 members of her unit killed, she and four others taken. Lynch spent nine days in captivity before her rescue by U.S. Special Forces.
“When I came in 1976, the Coast Guard was only accepting five women per month for active duty, and had only started letting them in to the academy in ‘74. A lot of places I served, I was the only woman,” said Brenda Woodfaulk Parker, 65, of Gary, a retired Chief Yeoman for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I can’t even imagine her waking up and being surrounded by all these men, and the language barrier, being alone. I felt for her, going through that at such a young age.”
Lynch suffered a broken back and legs, enduring numerous surgeries over the years. The recipient of a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and POW medals, she received a medical honorable discharge in August 2003, and authored her biography, “I Am A Soldier, Too,” in late 2003.
“I was fine for the first few years, because I was surrounded by love and support. As time went by, you feel better physically, you feel better mentally. And then it hits you like a ton of bricks: ‘Oh crap, I survived, and my comrades did not,’” Lynch said.
“And it hurts. It physically, mentally hurts. Sometimes it’s not the physical but the inside that hurts the most, and we don’t talk about it. I don’t go public with what I experienced with my PTSD. I never talked about what exactly I felt, what I saw,” she said.
“For instance, every time I was on the interstate, I would almost kind of close my eyes … because whenever someone would pass me, I thought they were going to shoot me.”