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Wednesday, July 9

Army report sheds little light on women soldiers' actions

By Billy House | The Arizona Repubic

WASHINGTON - An official Army report on the Iraqi ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company that led to the deaths of Spc. Lori Piestewa and 10 others pays scant attention to any individual actions taken by Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Piestewa.

The 15-page report, sent Wednesday to congressional offices, does confirm previous depictions of both women soldiers as having suffered serious injuries when their vehicle - a Humvee driven by Piestewa - was hit by a projectile during the ambush outside Nasiriyah and crashed into a stopped tractor-trailer.

``Piestewa survived the crash, but was seriously injured and died in captivity; Lynch was also seriously injured and captured,'' the report states.

But the report does not depict either Lynch or Piestewa as ever firing their weapons, although it does specify two other soldiers in the same vehicle did so. It also does not describe Lynch as being shot and stabbed by Iraqis before her capture, as previous reports had depicted.

The Army declined to comment Wednesday. It has tentatively scheduled a briefing for Thursday at the Pentagon on the report.

Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., and Piestewa, 23, a Hopi and divorced mother of two children who was from Tuba City, Ariz., were friends and may be the two most recognizable soldiers from ``Operation Iraqi Freedom.'' The nation's fascination with Lynch grew after her rescue April 1 at an Iraqi hospital, and reports that she had waged a gun battle with Iraqis. Piestewa had been taken to the same hospital alive, but died there. She is the first Native American woman known to have been killed in combat for the U.S. armed services.

But Army Lt. Col. Jeff Keane would not discuss whether the report officially debunks initial reports that Lynch emptied her rifle fighting off Iraqis, and that she had been shot and stabbed before being captured.

Keane also would not comment on whether the report debunks a claim made by a Pentagon official during a Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery about Piestewa's actions. Shirley Martinez, deputy assistant Air Force secretary for equal opportunity, had said of Piestewa, ``she drew her weapon and fought and did it with courage and honor.''

Soldiers `did their duty'

The report concludes that ``although all details of the battle could not be determined with certainty, it is clear that every soldier did their duty.''

But it also acknowledges it leaves many questions unanswered.

``In particular, in order to ensure the integrity of war crimes investigations, this report does not address in detail the conduct of the Iraqi combatants during the battle, provides only a brief description of the death or wounding of each U.S. casualty, and does not address Iraqi treatment of U.S. soldiers held captive.

"All of these are matters under separate investigation,'' the report states.

The report does not recommend any discipline, although it confirms that the 33 soldiers in the unit's 18-vehicle convoy mistakenly went straight into the town of Nasiriyah when it should have turned, blaming the circumstances on fatigue, human error and the fast pace of the war.

The report also does not assess decisions made, or recommend decorations for valor.

Of the 33 soldiers, 11 were killed, seven were captured and nine were wounded.

The document recounts how the unit, towing heavy and damaged vehicles, had fallen behind the Army's large column pressing toward Baghdad. The unit then missed a crucial turn, and its captain led the unit through Nasiriyah.

Eventually, he and a first sergeant recognized they'd missed a turn and decided to turn around. As they did, re-entering the town, the convoy came under fire, and began separating into three smaller groups.

The first group broke out of the city to meet up with Marines moving nearby. A second group was forced out of their vehicles after taking increased small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade fire from all sides, amid attempts by Iraqis to block the road. This group of 10 soldiers eventually was rescued by the Marines.

But the third group of 17 soldiers, which included the Humvee driven by Piestewa and carrying the first sergeant, Robert Dowdy, and Lynch, continued to receive fire at the rear of the convoy. Even as they did, they managed to pick up two other soldiers along the highway.

The report states those two soldiers, Spc. Edward Anguiano and Sgt. George Buggs, sitting in the rear of the Humvee with Lynch, began returning fire as the vehicle continued south. But the Humvee was hit by ``direct or indirect fire and crashed at a high rate of speed into the rear of the stopped tractor-trailer.''

Deaths being probed

While the Army has concluded that Piestewa and Lynch were seriously injured in that crash, the report notes that ``the circumstances of Buggs' and Anguiano's death remain under investigation.'' Dowdy was killed on impact in the crash. Lynch, who continues to be treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is said to have no memory of what happened.

The report mentions that most of the surviving soldiers of the group said ``they experienced weapons malfunctions.''

``These malfunctions may have resulted from inadequate individual maintenance in a desert environment,'' it states.

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes the Hopi Reservation, said Wednesday that he does not believe the report in any way diminishes the heroism of either Piestewa or Lynch.

``I think partly it's difficult to know what their actions were, and the early reports may not have been based on fact,'' Franks said. ``But the bottom line is when these two women got on the transport to go to Iraq, they were, in my view, already heroes."