Lynch to Rescuers: ‘I’m an American Soldier, Too’

By Jim Garamone, AFPS

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2003 – The special operations mission to rescue Army Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch from Iraqi captivity was a triumph of joint planning and execution, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart.

Renuart, operations chief at U.S. Central Command, gave more information about the Lynch rescue during a press conference in Qatar today.

Lynch was taken prisoner by Iraqi forces when the convoy she was riding in was ambushed by Iraqi irregulars near Nasiriyah March 23.

Renuart said that U.S. forces in the area began to get some indications from local contacts that there was an injured American being held at the hospital in Nasiriyah. Special operations forces further solidified the data.

"Anytime we have a situation like that, we put together a planning team that investigates the intelligence and decides, is this credible, and if so, do we have the capability to respond to recover our service member?" Renuart said.

The team decided the intelligence was right, and special operators put the plan into motion. On April 1, U.S. Army Rangers, Special Forces and aviators; U.S. Navy SEALs; Air Force pilots and combat controllers; and U.S. Marine elements launched the mission.

Renuart said speed was essential to rescue Lynch and to "exploit some areas of the hospital where we had reports of enemy headquarters, command-and-control facilities and the like."

One unit of Marines created a diversion in Nasiriyah. Another element, using helicopters and ground transport, brought the special operations team to the hospital.

"Upon entering the hospital, the assault force actually persuaded a local physician to lead them to Private Lynch’s location, and this local physician claimed at the same time that there were … remains of other U.S. military either in the morgue or possibly buried close by," Renuart said.

As the rescue team members entered Lynch’s hospital room, they called her name. "She had been scared, had the sheet up over her head because she didn’t know what was happening," Renuart said. "She lowered the sheet from her head. She didn’t really respond yet because I think she was probably pretty scared.

One team member repeated, "’Jessica Lynch, we’re the United States soldiers and we’re here to protect you and take you home,’" the general said. "She seemed to understand that. And as he walked over and took his helmet off, she looked up to him and said, ‘I’m an American soldier, too.’"

A U.S. physician with the team evaluated her condition and the team evacuated her. She had injuries both to her legs, her arm, a head injury, and seemed to be in a fair amount of pain, Renuart said.

One helicopter transported her to another nearby waiting aircraft, which would then move her to a field hospital, Renuart continued. "Jessica held up her hand and grabbed the Ranger doctor’s hand, held on to it for the entire time and said, ‘Please don’t let anybody leave me.’ It was clear she knew where she was and she didn’t want to be left anywhere in the hands of the enemy," he noted.

While the rescue was ongoing, other team members were led to a burial site containing bodies they thought might be American. "They … did not have shovels in order to dig those graves up, so they dug them up with their hands," Renuart said. "They wanted to do that very rapidly so that they could race the sun and be off the site before the sun came up — a great testament to the will and desire of coalition forces to bring their own home."

The team evacuated the bodies, and they were returned to the United States for forensic testing.

DoD identified eight of the bodies as American soldiers: Sgt. George E. Buggs, 31, of Barnwell, S.C.; Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland, Ohio; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso, Texas; Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Texas; Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland, Ohio; and Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo.

Buggs was with the 3rd Division Support Battalion of Fort Stewart, Ga. All the rest from Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss, Texas.

Lynch remains under treatment at the Lanstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.