- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jessica Lynch was just 19 when the world first saw her — a broken, blond soldier caught on combat video in Iraq, her face wearing something between a grimace and a grin.

The Army supply clerk was being carried on a stretcher after nine days as a prisoner of war. She had been captured along with five others after the 507th Maintenance Company took a wrong turn and came under attack in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Eleven of her fellow soldiers died.

Miss Lynch had joined the Army at 18 to earn money for college and become a school teacher. This Friday, at 28, she completes that mission.

She will spend Thursday finishing her training as a student teacher at the same elementary school she attended in sparsely populated Wirt County. Then, on severely damaged legs and a right foot that still pains her, she will walk across a stage Friday evening and get her education degree from West Virginia University at Parkersburg.

“It’s tough to walk, but I look at it as, ‘At least I’m walking,’ ” she says. “At least I have my legs. They may not work. I have no feeling in the left one. But it’s attached, at least. … At least I’m alive.”

Nearly 4,500 Americans died and some 32,000 were wounded during the war in Iraq, winding down this month as the last American troops withdraw. The first woman lost was Miss Lynch’s friend and fellow soldier, 23-year-old Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa of Arizona, killed in the convoy attack.

“Knowing she died right beside me and that could fairly well have been me brings a whole new perspective,” Miss Lynch said. “You’re just thankful for what you’ve been given, even if it’s not what you wanted.”

Today, Miss Lynch and longtime boyfriend Wes Robinson are parents to 5-year-old Dakota, whose name honors her fallen American Indian friend. Marriage, she says, is in the plan, but there’s no rush. What matters is the comfort she finds in her family. They are there when she is overcome by stress or shaken by the nightmares that still sometimes come.

“By looking at me through a picture, you’d never know anything is wrong,” she said. “I fake it. But my family, my friends … they know when I’m really in pain.”

When she was rescued, the U.S. government used footage of Lynch to spin a tale that exaggerated the truth. To make her seem more heroic and rally public support for the war, the military claimed she had gone down firing — when, in fact, her rifle had jammed. She wrote a book, “I Am a Soldier, Too,” with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, and has repeatedly worked to set the record straight.

“The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes,” she told Congress in 2007, “and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies.”

And the lies cost her. For a long time, she got hate mail. Some said she had done nothing to deserve the attention or the title of hero. She once told Glamour magazine she felt like “the most hated person in America.”

Every now and then, after a high-profile appearance, a hateful missive still arrives.

“They say things like, ‘Who do you think you are? That was so eight years ago,’ ” Miss Lynch said. “I just don’t respond. It just doesn’t bother me anymore. It used to, because I couldn’t understand why people were hating me. I was just a soldier like the 100,000 others over there.”

Literally and figuratively, she said, she now has a stronger backbone. “I just let things roll off.”

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