Jessica's Liberation

She was hiding in her bed just after midnight when the Special Ops team found her, in a room on the first floor of Saddam (naturally) Hospital in An Nasiriya. A soldier called her name, and without answering she peeked out from under the sheets. "Jessica Lynch," he called, "we're United States soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home." The American approached the bed and took his helmet off and she looked up at him and replied: "I'm an American soldier, too."

The operation had launched less than an hour before. As helicopters carrying the Special Ops forces land-ed outside the hospital, Predator drones circled overhead, sending pictures back to intelligence officers, who briefed commanders in the supersecure Joint Operations Center. One detachment of Marines made a diversionary attack on another part of the city, while the main force landed at the hospital and began searching for Lynch. When they found her, she "seemed to be in a fair amount of pain," officials later recounted, and she was strapped to a stretcher to be carried down a flight of steps and outside to a helicopter. As her chopper took off, she grabbed the hand of the Army doctor and pleaded, "Don't let anybody leave me."

In the Joint Operations Center, Air Force Capt. Joe Della Vedova followed the raid as it happened, and as soon as Lynch was in the air phoned Jim Wilkinson, the top civilian communications aide to CENTCOM Gen. Tommy Franks. "She is safe and in our hands," he reported. The whole operation, expected to take 45 minutes, was over in 25. Next Della Vedova called Gen. Vince Brooks, the No. 2 operational officer at CENTCOM. "Mission Success 1," he said tersely, indicating a successful rescue of Lynch. "Mission Success 1 and 2" would have meant they'd achieved the raid's other objective: to capture Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, the sinister "Chemical Ali" who had an office in the hospital. They missed him that time, but a few days later U.S. officials announced that he was believed to have been killed in a bombing raid on his home.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch had entered Iraq as an unheralded private, a 19-year-old clerk in a rear-echelon supply unit that had the misfortune to take a wrong turn in the desert. But she left it last week as the one enlisted soldier almost every American could recognize by sight--the first U.S. prisoner to be rescued from behind enemy lines since World War II. Her return to safety after 10 days in Iraqi hands was a welcome reminder to Americans that their forces could strike almost at will in Iraq, coming just as the Coalition resumed the advance that took them to the streets of Baghdad last week. It was heralded from the White House--where President George W. Bush was described by a senior official as "full of joy because of her rescue and full of pride because of the rescuers"--to the tiny hamlet of Palestine, W.Va., where church bells rang and the roadside signs left no doubt about who deserved the credit: THANK YOU GOD FOR SAVING JESSIE! PRAYER BRINGS MIRACLES HOME.

The other parties deserving a share of the plaudits included the thousand or so Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Marines and Air Force fliers who carried out the raid, CIA spies and an Iraqi man named Mohammed who was so moved by her plight that he risked his own life to tell the Americans where to find her. "Someday, I hope to meet him," Lynch's father, Greg, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old truckdriver, told NEWSWEEK. "And I hope Jessie meets him. He's just got to be an angel sent by God." But the episode also showed the inadequacy of relying on miracles in warfare. The helicopters that brought her out alive also retrieved the badly burned bodies of at least nine other American soldiers who had disappeared outside An Nasiriya in the early days of the war.

And amid the joy there were unsettling questions about Lynch's condition and her treatment in captivity. Her injuries included fractures to both legs, her right arm and spine, and after undergoing several operations last week she developed a fever that reached 104. Exactly how she was injured, though, remained a mystery; the commander of the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, told reporters on Friday that "she was not stabbed; she was not shot." Later that day, though, surgeons discovered that she had been shot--and, according to a family spokesman in West Virginia, Dan Little, her wounds were "consistent with low-velocity small arms." The unpleasant implication was that she might have been shot after she'd been captured, rather than wounded in combat. The mystery grew when CNN reported that Marines searching the home of a Baath Party official in An Nasiriya had discovered Lynch's dog tag.

The possibility of mistreatment had been very much on the mind of President Bush, who, according to a senior administration official, had frequently raised concerns about American women's falling into Iraqi hands. (In addition to Lynch, two other American women were listed as missing after the convoy ambush on March 23: Specialist Shoshana Johnson, who later turned up alive on Iraqi television, but has not been heard from since, and Pfc. Lori Piestewa, whose body was among those brought back by the team that rescued Lynch.) Military officials refused to discuss any aspect of Lynch's captivity, and her parents say they haven't even asked: "When she's ready to tell us, she'll tell us," her father said. But she did say that she survived for part of her time in the hospital on nothing but orange juice and crackers. Mohammed, --the Iraqi lawyer who helped rescue her, said he was moved to action by the sight of a hulking, black-clad captor slapping her across the face, with his palm and then the back of his hand. Such behavior was a big change from the first gulf war, when soldiers greeted the first American woman prisoner, Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, as a celebrity. They compared her bravery to Sylvester Stallone's and her beauty to Brooke Shields's, and fed her so well she actually gained weight in captivity.

Marine officers confirmed at least the outlines of Mohammed's vivid account, which he gave to reporters for The Washington Post and USA Today before he dropped from sight. (At least two other possible sources for information about Lynch's location were rumored last week. One was an Iraqi man who approached NBC reporter Kerry Sanders, traveling with the Eighth Marine Division, to say that an American woman was being held at the hospital, adding: "She's being tortured." And intelligence sources in Washington say the CIA independently came up with information pinpointing her location.) The 32-year-old lawyer said he was visiting his wife, a hospital nurse, when he became curious about the profusion of agents guarding the emergency wing. A doctor friend showed him the room where the heavily bandaged Lynch was being held. Remarkably, considering all the guards around the place, Mohammed managed to sneak inside her room and give her a message. "Don't worry," he whispered, he was going for help.

Help was six miles away in the desert, where Mohammed, walking all the way, finally encountered a Marine patrol. And that, he related, was only the beginning of his travails: after giving his account to officers, he was sent back to the hospital twice for more information, returning with five hand-drawn maps and a count of the Fedayeen guards: 41. Then the planners at CENTCOM went to work. For three days they weighed intelligence and refined their plans, eventually committing a force equivalent to a full battalion. On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 1, General Franks briefed his field commanders by video-conference--a briefing described as ex-ceptional for its emphasis on operational security. He signed off on the mission, and was asleep by the time it began. Once the raid was success-fully completed, the news traveled quickly back to Washington, where it was still Tuesday afternoon, and began leaking out to the media. Among those who heard the report that a female POW had been rescued were the relatives of Shoshana Johnson, who promptly rejoiced. As far as they knew, Johnson was the only American woman captive; Lynch and Piestewa were listed as missing. "It was heartbreaking," Johnson's sister Nikki said later; "I'm happy she was found, because she's 19, that's a baby. But they got my family's hopes up for nothing." Still, the absence of news about Johnson was better than the news about the others. An Iraqi doctor led the Americans to the makeshift graves of as many as 11 Coalition soldiers. Without shovels, the Special Ops team dug up the bodies with their bare hands. Later, nine names, including eight from Lynch and Johnson's unit, were moved from "missing" to "killed in action."

But there was only joy in Palestine for the safe return of Lynch--Miss Congeniality at the county fair, and the smallest member of her high-school bas-ketball team at "maybe five-four in heels," according to Ken Heiney, the principal. "We can't legally have prayers," he said exuberantly, "but I'm not ashamed to say there were many of them last week." After the news of Lynch's capture, he said, "the halls were silent for days," but when she was rescued, "those 325 kids raised the roof."

It's a town so small and remote that Jessica never set foot in a shopping mall until she was a senior in high school. In fact, Gov. Bob Wise credited her survival in part to the effects of a rural West Virginia childhood: "People here rely on their own resources and strengths." She joined the Army partly to get money for college, intending to teach kindergarten when she returns home, and partly to see the world. The first shouldn't be a problem--Wise offered her a full scholarship to any college in the state system--and as for the world, she's seen more of it than she bargained for. "She said she knew it was going to be dangerous," said Don Nelson, a family friend, "but she always said, 'I'm ready, I'm prepared, I've been trained well'." Besides, she added, "I'm just a member of a supply crew." Ever since shipping out, Lynch had kept up a running joke with her father about smuggling home a Jeep for him, and when he spoke to her last week in the hospital she told him, "I know it's there, and if not, I know where we can get one." His conclusion: "I think, more or less, we're going to get back the old Jessie." For Pfc. Jessica Lynch, at least, the war was over, and it ended as well as anyone could have prayed for.