U.S. commandos prepared for the worst when they stormed an Iraqi hospital April 1 to free Pfc. Jessica Lynch, even positioning a potent AC-130 gunship overhead to kill any enemy forces who intervened.
It marked the first time in decades that Special Operations Forces had penetrated enemy lines and rescued a prisoner of war. They wanted to videotape the mission for the history books, said a senior Special Operations official on the condition of anonymity.
“It was a cool thing to do,” he said, adding that scores of Special Operations missions were captured by combat cameramen during the war as part of a Pentagon program to document events and learn from mistakes.
Special Operations and defense officials discussed the mission in interviews this week to rebut what they consider an inaccurate report by the British Broadcasting Corp.
The state-supported network, whose coverage was generally critical of the war in Iraq, charged that the U.S. Central Command staged the mission as a public relations stunt. It also said the commandos fired blanks inside Pfc. Lynch’s hospital prison for cinematic effect.
U.S. officials have adamantly denied the charge. They say no shots — blanks or otherwise — were fired by the Navy SEAL-led team inside Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad.
After Baghdad fell April 9, the same specially trained SEAL unit went on to capture the majority of wanted senior Iraqi leaders on Central Command’s “deck of cards.” In Afghanistan, some of the SEALs had comprised Task Force 11, a secret unit dedicated to catching senior al Qaeda terrorists.
“These are not the type of guys who carry blanks,” an official said.
Officials said no resistance emerged when the SEALs and Army Rangers entered and found Pfc. Lynch.
They added, however, that the hospital had served as a command post for the Iraqi military. Based on that fact, basic military-planning doctrine mandated that commanders assume the worst might happen. As a result, they sent in a well-armed, sizable force to rescue the 19-year-old Army maintenance private, who lay in a hospital bed, immobilized by multiple bone fractures.
“They were not going in there to play tag. They were going in there with the thought that their lives are on the line,” said a senior Special Operations official. “At every turn of a corner, it was discovered Iraqi military routinely used hospitals and schools and mosques, places clearly outside the normal redoubt as fighting positions. We had every reason to believe this hospital contained hostile forces.”
The BBC leveled its charges based, in part, on the fact the Americans faced no resistance inside the hospital and because Central Command released edited video clips of the rescue mission to the media. The BBC said the U.S. team simply could have walked into the undefended hospital and fetched the prisoner of war.
But U.S. officials respond to that charge by saying that military planners, who are responsible for their commandos’ lives, did not know who was in the hospital.
At the time of the April 1 rescue, Nasiriyah remained a hot war zone and dangerous place. Just eight days before, 18 U.S. service members were killed, nine alone in the Iraqi ambush of Pfc. Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company convoy.