Jessica Lynch stood next to Percy Piestewa as a crowd of Native American athletes gathered to take pictures with them — a surviving prisoner of war and the mother of fallen soldier Lori Piestewa.
The two women spoke Friday at the opening ceremony for the 2018 Fiesta Bowl Lori Piestewa National Native American Games in Scottsdale.
It was Percy’s 15th year attending the games honoring her daughter, and Lynch’s first time as honorary chairwoman.
Percy is like a second mother to Lynch, who was best friends with Lori and served with her during the Iraq War.
Lynch was alongside Lori when they were ambushed on their way to central Iraq in 2003. The ambush led to Lynch being captured by Iraqi soldiers and Lori’s death at the age of 23.
“One of Lori’s dreams was to bring people together, and by looking out at this crowd, she has accomplished that,” Lynch said.
The Piestewa Games, which run through Sunday, are expected to attract more than 3,000 athletes representing more than 50 tribes across North America.
Athletes will compete in basketball, volleyball, youth baseball, softball, cross country, and track and field.
‘Some little girl from West Virginia and some little girl from the reservation’
Lori played basketball, softball and ran track when she was younger. She pitched for her varsity team all four years of high school in Tuba City.
The young Hopi woman also did ROTC for four years and was awarded top female athlete.
“She was an amazing child, very bright and always loved life,” Percy said.
She went on to have two children, Carla and Brandon. She joined the military to support them after she and her husband split.
“Lori wanted to go to college,” Percy said. “That’s why she joined the military. As a parent, my job is to encourage and support the decisions my kids make. That’s what I did.”
Lori was a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps soldier and member of the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company. Following training, Lori was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, where she would meet Lynch.
Lynch began basic training a week after 9/11. Although she was nervous, she said she was committed to easing her family’s financial burden of putting three kids through college.
She was moved to Fort Bliss to begin advanced training as a supply clerk. There, she met her roommate, and soon to be best friend, Lori.
“I was really excited to get a roommate but I know Lori wasn’t as excited at first because she’d had the room to herself all this time,” Lynch said. “But it wasn’t long after that we just clicked, it was an instant chemistry.”
The two soldiers were attached at the hip for a year. When they weren’t on duty, Lynch and Lori spent time off-duty getting food or hanging out with Lori’s parents and kids.
“Every payday we’d drive to Fort Bliss to see Lori and Jessica,” Percy said. “It’s amazing how bonded her and Jessica were. Some little girl from West Virginia and some little girl from the reservation, it was amazing.”
Lynch, who was 19 at the time, dreamed of being a kindergarten teacher. So, she said she cherished the time she spent with Brandon and Carla.
“Having her kids around was so fulling for me,” Lynch said. “Seeing her as a mother showed me a side of her that made me appreciate her as a person even more.”
Talk of the war began in late 2002, around Thanksgiving, Lynch said. Four months later, she, Lori and 507th Maintenance Company were deployed to Kuwait.
Lori’s family traveled to Fort Bliss to send Lori and Lynch off.
“Nervous is the best way to describe how we felt going to a foreign country,” Lynch said. “But I was also calm knowing that we were going through this together.”
Not long into their deployment, President George Bush declared war with Iraq on March 20, 2003.
Lynch’s convoy had to depart Kuwait.
Up until the declaration of war, Percy communicated with Lori through mail. The last time she spoke with her was before Lori’s unit headed north through the border to Iraq.
“She sent me an email,” Percy said. “She said ‘I hot-wired my captain’s computer, we’re going in two minutes,’ she said ‘don’t text me back’.”
Hours after crossing into southern Iraq, the unit needed to set a perimeter to rest. Their vehicles surrounded the cots they had set up to sleep in, and they took shifts keeping lookout.
“As you can imagine, I didn’t get any sleep that night,” Lynch said. “It’s one thing to be in a new country, it’s another thing to be staying in a country you’re at war with.”
On March 23, 2003, the unit began its trip toward Baghdad in a fleet vehicles.
Lynch and Lori were in the rear supply vehicle of the convoy when they started running into trouble.
“We were getting stuck in sand pits and eventually got separated from the rest of the vehicles,” Lynch said.
Focused, Lori drove their Humvee as it was being shot at in an ambush by Iraqi forces in Nasiriyah.
“She was so calm throughout it all,” Lynch recalled. “Then a rocket-propelled grenade hit the rear of the vehicle causing us to crash into an 18-wheeler.”
Lori’s head hit the steering wheel hard enough to cause severe injury, Lynch said.
“I lost consciousness once we crashed,” Lynch said.
Lynch awoke alone with a number of Iraqi soldiers surrounding her.
“I was taken to one of Saddam’s palaces,” Lynch said. “After I woke up, they took me to a nearby hospital. I was in shock. I couldn’t move my body.”
Lynch’s back, legs and feet were crushed during the ambush.
First Native American woman killed in combat
Percy was in Flagstaff at her sister’s house watching the news, a U.S. military unit was ambushed in Iraq. Later that evening, a man from the military came to her house and informed Lori’s unit was missing.
“We held a Native American ceremony after he told us to see if Lori was okay,” Percy said. “At the end of the ceremony, we had known she had passed on. We were prepared for the news.”
Soon, the military informed Percy that Lori had died as a prisoner of war due to the injuries she’d sustained. Lori and her comrades killed in the ambush were buried in shallow graves outside of the Nasiriyah Hospital.
Percy didn’t get to see her daughter again. After exhuming the body, the military prepared Lori in a casket and sent her home for burial.
“When you have your faith, you understand that these things are a part of life,” Percy said.
Percy is accustomed to the risks associated with serving one’s country. Her father was a veteran, her uncle was killed in Normandy and her husband, Terry, did a tour in Vietnam.
“We know we don’t have any control over these things,” Percy said. “It’s God’s decision at the end. So, you move on.”
Nine days later, an Iraqi lawyer informed the U.S. Special Forces of the hospital where Lynch was held.
“I believe the lawyer’s wife was one of the nurses looking after me at the hospital,” Lynch said.
Shortly after her rescue, Lynch was transported to a hospital in Germany where she received surgeries, before being transported to another hospital in Washington D.C.
As soon as they received word of Lynch’s safe return, Percy, Terry and the kids crossed the country to visit her there.
“It was important that we went to see Jessica,” Percy said. “We wanted to let her know that it was OK that she came home and that we were happy she came home.”
As soon as they arrived to the hospital room, Carla, the youngest child, jumped into bed with Lynch.
“It was very emotional, you know seeing her family and the kids,” Lynch said. “I cried for days after I found out, I felt a lot of survivor’s guilt.”
Continuing Lori’s legacy
Lynch has honored her best friend by maintaining a strong relationship with her children and Percy.
“Lori really wanted to build a house for her family after deployment,” Lynch said.
In 2005, Lynch shared Lori’s story with Ty Pennington, the host of Extreme Home Makeover. The home Lori always wanted for her family was built in Flagstaff soon after.
Today, Lynch continues to share her best friend’s legacy as a motivational speaker and author.
Nearly two decades later, Percy continues to honor her daughter’s legacy.
Annually, Percy hosts a memorial dinner for the families of fallen soldiers on March 22 and leads a hike up Piestewa Peak the following day. The mountain was renamed in Lori’s honor shortly after her death.
After Lori’s death, the Native American Games were renamed the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games too.
“Lori was an amazing athlete and I want these kids to remember her for that as well,” Lynch said. “A lot of these kids weren’t born when this happened so it’s important to talk about and remind them of her courage.”
Lori’s own children have grown as well. Brandon just graduated from Coconino Community College and will attend Northern Arizona University to study sports therapy.
Carla just graduated high school and plans to attend Grand Canyon University to pursue a medical career.
Lynch keeps up with Carla and Brandon through phone calls, text messages and Facebook, sharing stories of their mother.
She’s currently working on her second book focused on leadership and enjoys spending time with her 11-year-old daughter Dakota.
When she’s not writing or giving speeches around the country, Lynch substitute teaches kindergarten classes in West Virginia.