Heroism and loss: The first Native American woman to die in combat

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/28/heroism-and-loss-the-first-native-american-woman-to-die-in-combat/

On a fateful day in 2003, 23-year-old Pfc. Lori Piestewa was traveling with a 600-vehicle convoy through the Iraqi desert before dawn. Three of the heavier vehicles, including hers, became lost. They ended up in the very city they had planned to avoid, Nasiriyah. When Piestewa’s Humvee was attacked, she was taken prisoner and later died of her injuries. She became the first Native American woman in history to be killed in combat. Piestewa’s heroism during the ambush was inspiring. But it came at a great cost: in addition to her life, she left behind two small children.

Piestewa was born on a Navajo reservation near Tuba City, Arizona. She was given the Hopi name Qötsa-Hon-Mana, which means White Bear Girl. Piestewa’s family had a long history with the military. Her father, Terry, is a full-blooded Hopi Native American who served in the Vietnam War. Her paternal grandfather was also a veteran, having served in Europe during World War II.

Piestewa Hall dedication at Fort Benning"(Courtesy, U.S. Army)

Piestewa Hall dedication at Fort Benning”(Courtesy, U.S. Army)

In 2001, Piestewa enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company. Her unit was deployed to Iraq in March 2003. On March 23, just 3 days into the war, Piestewa was driving a Humvee filled with repair and support personnel. After a navigation error, they ended up at an Iraqi checkpoint and came under heavy gunfire from all sides.

At first, Piestewa evaded the onslaught with swift driving. But as her Humvee was belted with artillery, they sustained a number of casualties. In the mayhem, Piestewa helped rescue two soldiers. Finally, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the truck, and it crashed. She suffered severe head injuries and was captured, along with two other soldiers, including her best friend, Jessica Lynch.

“It helps our grandchildren to know their mother, because when you’re that young, you don’t know your parents when they leave.”

Shortly thereafter, Piestewa died from her wounds in captivity. Eight other soldiers were also killed in action. Lynch was eventually saved, becoming the first American prisoner of war rescued since World War II. Lynch later stated that Piestewa behaved with tremendous heroism during the attack. The Pentagon also confirmed that she fought valiantly during the ambush.

For her bravery, Piestewa was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals, and promoted to Specialist (Spc.). Since her death, many memorials have been erected in her honor. In the Phoenix Mountains, for example, Arizona’s state government renamed Squaw Peak as Piestewa Peak.

Family and friends mourn Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa during a memorial dedication ceremony at White Sands Missile Range. (Courtesy, U.S. Army)

Family and friends mourn Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa during a memorial dedication ceremony at White Sands Missile Range. (Courtesy, U.S. Army)

Piestewa’s heroism has inspired many people around the world. Nevertheless, the tragic reality of war meant that her two children, only 3 and 4 years old at the time, were left without a mother. Thankfully, Piestewa’s parents were able to care for them, since she was unmarried at the time of her death.

Speaking at a memorial dedication at White Sands Missile Range, Piestewa’s mother Percy said, “It helps our grandchildren to know their mother, because when you’re that young, you don’t know your parents when they leave.” She also added, “The Lord blesses us with children, and he blesses us with friends, however it’s only on a loan basis. It’s not on a forever basis, because we’re not here on this Earth forever.”

Piestewa’s remains were returned to the Navajo reservation where she was born and raised. Although the Hopis worked alongside the Navajos as Code Talkers during World War II, the two tribes had a contentious relationship for centuries. In one of the most inspiring outcomes of Piestewa’s death, the tribes overcame their longstanding rivalry to offer a joint prayer ceremony in honor of the fallen soldier.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

NBPDiversity

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