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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Special Edition: Heroes of the 507th

Aired April 14, 2005 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


AARON BROWN, HOST "NEWSNIGHT": Good evening, again.
Two years ago, a wrong turn in the Iraqi desert put a group of ordinary Americans in a situation they never expected to face. What happened would change them forever. Mistakes would be made, myths would be born, heroes as well. In truth, the members of the 507 maintenance company reacted as many of us would: they were terrified, they were brave. Some fought, others surrendered, not everyone survived.

Two years ago, in Iraq, the fog of war was just beginning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): It had been three days of war, shock and awe. Long lines of tanks and armored personnel carriers racing towards Baghdad. What resistance found, quickly eliminated.

Moving to the southern town of Nasiriyah, reports we're getting right now of...

Then suddenly, if not surprisingly, reports of a setback. A convoy attacked, ambushed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The news is not good for the U.S. military. Pentagon officials....

BROWN: We knew that soldiers had died, others were missing. The numbers were sketchy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We understand that some U.S. soldiers were killed. Some were captured.

BROWN: Hours later, terrible pictures appearing on Arab TV networks, tape of those captured showing them shaken, afraid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shana?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BROWN: Although the pictures were grim, they were also proof of life, providing us, and even more importantly, their families with hope. CAPT. NIKKI JOHNSON, SISTER OF SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Considering the whole situation in which some individuals did die, you know, and the fact that, you know, she was seen on TV, she looks to be staying strong. You know, hopefully, her angels are still with her.

BROWN: It seemed on the first of April, we were a nation in need of good news, and we got it when we heard of a daring rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Great joy in Palestine, West Virginia tonight, the hometown of once missing U.S. Army Soldier Jessica Lynch. In a dramatic rescue, Marines special forces snatched the 19-year-old private first class from an Iraqi hospital described as a Fedayeen strong hold.

BROWN: Almost as if it were a movie, we watched a daring rescue play out in green nighttime video. Images, brief images, of special forces at work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're doing great, Jessica.

BROWN: We were told that Jessica Lynch was a heroine, that she fought off the enemy until her gun was emptied before being stabbed, shot, and taken hostage and tortured in an Iraqi hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have breaking developments to tell you about involving American P.O.W.s, apparently...

BROWN: On April 13th, we watched as five soldiers from the 507th and two pilots were freed and boarding planes back to Kuwait, tired, some injured, but safe, and most importantly, on their way home.

Almost four months after the ambush, Jessica Lynch went home to a hero's homecoming in her West Virginia hometown. The young, soft- spoken supply clerk that went down fighting was embraced as a symbol of American bravery.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (on camera): Stories that break in the thick of battle can quickly become something they're not. Time would revise the story of the 507th, and the truth, or as much of it as we'll ever know, is extraordinary still. Here's CNN's Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The soldiers of the 507th maintenance company, saying good-bye to family and friends before leaving for Iraq. It is February 17th, 2003.

Private first class Laurie Piestwa is smiling.

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS LAURIE PIESTWA: P-i-e-s-t-e-w-a. Right here.

STARR: Just a month later, they would be in the fight for their lives. Trained as mechanics, cooks, and technicians, they would fight, and some would die in combat.

March 23rd, the 507th was at the end of a column of hundreds of vehicles moving north in the march to Baghdad. As they came to Nasiriyah, they fell behind and missed a critical left turn that should have taken them around the town. Instead, exhausted -- they had not slept in 60 hours -- they drove right into hostile territory, a mistake that put them in combat. Realizing their error, the convoy tried to retrace its steps, but some vehicles ran out of gas, some broke down.

BRIG. GEN. HOWARD BROMBERG, US ARMY: They took a turn, and they realized there were sand bags on either side of the road, ditches, and heavy weapons began firing. They returned fire.

STARR: The 507th tried to fight back, but many of their weapons jammed. Under fire, the convoy broke up into three groups. Two of the groups made it to safety, the other, disaster. One vehicle plows into the back of another. Private first class Jessica Lynch is injured in the crash, and Lori Piestwa, badly wounded. She later died in captivity.

To this day, the Pentagon has an open criminal investigation to determine if any of the 11 U.S. soldiers who died were executed by the Iraqis in cold blood. The low point, the P.O.W.s are shown on Arab TV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shana?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are do you come from?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Texas.

STARR: Lynch's capture would grab the world's attention. The "Washington Post," quoting administration, but not Pentagon sources, said she was fighting to the death and had shot several Iraqis before being wounded and captured. But army investigators now say she never fired a shot, and what of her rescue?

BRIG. GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, US ARMY SPOKESMAN: Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. army prisoner of war.

STARR: Night scope video shows commandos pulling off a daring late night rescue from a Nasiriyah hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you smile for the family?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So your folks can see how you're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're doing great, Jessica. You're doing wonderful. Okay?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Welcome back.

STARR: Once again, later news reports revealed there was little actual danger. Iraqi forces had abandoned the area the day before. A week later, the rest of the P.O.W.s are free. The general who announced Lynch's rescue to the world now says the story of the 507th showed how the military works.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that is that we always place the mission first. We never accept defeat. We don't quit, and we don't leave a fallen comrade.

STARR: And for soldiers who never anticipated a fire fight, this assessment from the Pentagon's own investigation: every soldier performed honorably.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And that's the story for the history books.

The rest of our program deals with the story as only the soldiers themselves can tell it. Moments of surprise and terror and the sweetest moments of all, coming home.

Here's CNN's Ed Lavandera.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was the perfect ending to a great homecoming: specialist Joe Hudson proudly waving to the huge crowd, specialist Patrick Miller holding the American flag from atop the military plane that brought them home. Hudson could hardly contain his excitement.

JOE HUDSON, FORMER POW: Thank you for your outstanding support. This means the world to all of us. Remember our fallen soldiers. God bless America. This is why we live in a great country!

HUDSON: This is the famous picture of us.

LAVANDERA: Two years later, it's still an emotional memory. Hudson keeps the picture on the wall of his El Paso, Texas, apartment.

HUDSON: It's simply amazing just how many people support us, too. It was simply amazing. I don't forget that at all. I'm very thankful that this whole country came together to support us.

LAVANDERA: Joe Hudson keeps reminders of his P.O.W. experience all around him.

HUDSON: Still got these wonderful pajamas. I'm going to frame them in a case up here pretty soon.

LAVANDERA: He wore these pajamas for 22 days after Iraqi soldiers stripped him of his army uniform.

HUDSON: I was given the luxury for an undershirt and a pair of boxers.

LAVANDERA: But above the pictures of his comrades who were killed in action, there's a special space on the wall for Johnny Mata.

HUDSON: I would not be alive today if it wasn't for that man.

LAVANDERA: The two men were riding together when the convoy was ambushed.

HUDSON: What he did in combat was simply amazing. He was already wounded, and he laid down cover fire for me so I wouldn't get hurt.

LAVANDERA: The memories of that fire fight will never go away.

MILLER: It's one of deals that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

HUDSON: It's amazing I'm alive because -- I mean, bullets just whizzing by my ear. I literally seen one cross my eye. I burned my eye.

LAVANDERA: Both men find that remembering the lighter moments of their 22 days in captivity helped them deal with the pain.

MILLER: As prisoners, I was singing "The Angry American" to him all the time.

TOBY KEITH, COUNTRY SONGWRITER: (SINGING) "This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage, you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A..."

LAVANDERA: That's country musician Toby Keith's anthem, vowing payback for the September 11 attacks.

HUDSON: After interrogations and the beatings stopped, it was just -- it was time to annoy our captors. And we kept them -- we kept them on their toes. You know, Miller's singing, Ron tapping on spoons, me and Dave pounding on the door every two minutes, just to let us out to go use the bathroom, whether we had to go or not.

LAVENDERA: Hudson earned a Bronze Star, but his injuries forced him to retire from the Army last September. Now he's a full-time student, taking a cocktail of medications every day.

HUDSON: Main injury is right here on my belt line. It's right in this area right here. And then I have multiple shrapnel wounds. And I still got a lot of shrapnel inside my back.

LAVENDERA: Patrick Miller is back home with his wife and two children, but he's no longer in the 507th Maintenance Unit. He's based at Fort Carson, Colorado, working a desk job. It's not something this mechanic enjoys. MILLER: I'd rather be working in the grease and the mud all day long.

LAVENDERA: Miller's new unit was deployed to Iraq last December. He volunteered to go, but the military says former P.O.W.s can't go back to the same battlefield where they were captured. He doesn't like being left behind.

MILLER: I couldn't understand why they were going, but they wouldn't let me go.

LAVENDERA: Both Hudson and Miller say they often thought of their families waiting for them back home. It was key to their survival.

HUDSON: One thing that kept me going the most was my daughter. My father was killed in an accident when I was 11-years-old. And I had a I rough time growing up without a father. And I told myself my daughter is not going to grow up without a father. I'm going to get through this.

LAVENDERA: Miller says being without his daughter was tough, but it taught him a new way to think about life.

MILLER: It makes you value the small things that you have in your life, as far as your family and friends and different people that care about you.

LAVENDERA: Joe Hudson keeps a picture of his fellow P.O.W.s and the team that nursed them all back to health on his living room wall. They share a bond only they can truly understand.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, El Paso, Texas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: When our special report continues, two faces we remember best from that moment in March.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVENDERA: One was a cook.

SHOSHANA JOHNSON: I was terrified. I didn't know what was going to happen to me.

LAVENDERA: The other, a clerk.

JESSICA LYNCH: What happened two years ago is who I am.

BROWN: Their stories would become our stories. We'll catch up with Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch.

The heroes you might have forgotten.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is his Silver Star and his citations. BROWN: Two stories of bravery and sacrifice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They give the highest honor to the warriors. The top honor is the horse and a rifle.

BROWN: Two years later a Hopi warrior and the family who remembers her. From New York, this is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ERICA HILL, CNN HEADLINE NEWS: We'll rejoin a special edition of NEWSNIGHT WITH AARON BROWN in just a minute. But first, a check of the headlines for you.

The House today approved legislation that makes it more difficult for people to wipe out their debts through bankruptcy. It makes it tougher for individuals to qualify for a Chapter 7 filing, which allows courts to cancel debts after assets are sold off.

Now many of those people could now be shifted to a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which requires people to continue making payments for up to five years. The Senate has already passed the measure. President Bush says he is eager to sign it.

President Bush's choice to become the first U.S. director of national intelligence was approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today. John Negroponte's nomination could come up for a full Senate vote next week. His confirmation is expected.

In Oregon, 3,000 marriage licenses issued to same sex couples there last year are now invalid. Today, the Supreme Court ruled Muldenoma (hp) County which issued those licenses violated the state constitution, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Last November, Oregon voters rejected an effort to change the constitution to allow same sex marriage.

Treasury Department officials are widening the security perimeter around the duck. Today workers set up a second line of metal crowd control barriers around a mallard hen who was sitting on her eggs under a tree near the White House. Officials are concerned, though, that protesters gathered to demonstrate at a global economic summit in Washington might disturb the nesting duck.

She's been there for almost two weeks. Her ducklings are expected to hatch at the end of the month.

And that is the latest from Headline News. I'm Erica Hill. Now back to a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

BROWN: The 507th left Ft. Bliss, Texas for Iraq. They were ordinary soldiers, many of them young and untested. They were cooks and clerks and mechanics, support troops. They weren't really supposed to see front line combat. But as you know now, a wrong turn in the desert would change everything. Those who survived would return home different people. Two of them, young women. Here's CNN's Frank Buckley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jessica Lynch, the Army supply clerk who was captured, then rescued, then celebrated as an American hero. Shoshana Johnson, the army cook who was videotaped barely an hour after she'd been shot in the ankle and captured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

JOHNSON: Shana.

I was terrified. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And I was in a lot of pain.

BUCKLEY (on camera): Did you fear for life at that momen?

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. I feared for my life the whole captivity.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Johnson was held with six other American prisoners. Lynch was alone. Her rescue videotaped by her rescuers. Initially unnamed military officials said Lynch heroically fought off Iraqi soldiers until she was finally wounded and captured. The only problem, it wasn't true.

LYNCH: The real story was I was just laying there and knocked out.

BUCKLEY: But by the time Lynch herself denied that version of events, she'd been accused of taking credit for the heroics of others.

(on camera): A lot of people are angry. A lot of people were angry at you.

LYNCH: Yes. Yes.

BUCKLEY: Did that pain you?

LYNCH: Yes. Actually, it did because I felt that I did nothing wrong. Why was everyone, you know, blaming me for this? You know, I felt that, you know, I did something good. I was the one, you know, said, no, no, no, this isn't what happened. And it would have been so easy for me to just take the credit.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): There was no denying Lynch's devastating wounds. She still walks with a cane and struggles with nerve damage. There's daily physical therapy and pain. And what few people know is how Iraqi doctors protected Lynch and provided life saving treatment.

Two years later, Lynch is thankful.

(on camera): If they happen to be watching, the doctors, the health care folks who took care of you, what would you want to say to them?

LYNCH: Just how grateful I am that they took that time and treated me like I was one of their own. I mean, they could have left me laying or not even worried about me. But, you know, actually, tried to heal me. And that was wonderful. That was one of my most memorable moments.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): And over the past two years, there have been many such moments, like Johnson's home coming with her fellow P.O.W.s to El Paso. And the parade in Lynch's hometown.

Overnight, a supply clerk and a cook were thrust from obscurity to celebrity.

JOHNSON: As a cook in the Army, do you ever think you're going to go to a Golden Globe after party and Queen Latifah? You know what I'm saying? You never think that's going to happen, but it did.

BUCKLEY: Glamour magazine named them women of the year. NBC made a TV movie about Lynch's life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you see that, first sergeant?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Stay calm.

BUCKLEY: Johnson dropped the ball in New York on New Year's Eve. She appeared on talk shows like the Ellen Degeneres show.

But Lynch got a million dollar book deal and more in disability payments from the military than Johnson. Some said it was race. Johnson wasn't one of them. And she says reports that women were at odds weren't true.

(on camera): Do you begrudge her any of that?

JOHNSON: Good lord, no. If it had come my way, would I be upset? No.

I think the consensus with all the rest of us POWs is she would have been a fool not to take it, plain and simple.

Everything happens for a reason. I've had a lot of good fortune. I'm healthy. My family's healthy: my daughters, my nieces. I don't ask God for anything more than that.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Today, both women do speaking engagements and expect to permanently retire from the military later this year. Lynch starts college in the fall with hopes of becoming a teacher. Mentally and emotionally, she says, she's fine. But physically, it's been frustrating.

LYNCH: The struggles, you know, not being able to do some of the things that I used to. But, you know, I'm OK with that, because I'm just happy that you know, I'm actually here. I'm alive. And I'm pretty much healthy.

BUCKLEY: Johnson, too, has learned to live with the pain. But emotionally she's she still struggles.

JOHNSON: I do see a psychiatrist, and, you know, for the mental aspects. And I'll be -- you know, there's no way around it. I'll probably be doing that for the rest of my life. But it's still better than some of the soldiers have to endure, burns, amputees. I got off very lucky.

BUCKLEY: As they heal, both know that some part of that day two years ago will always remain.

LYNCH: What happened two years ago is who I am. You know, I am the former prisoner of war. That is who I am. That will be how people recognize me. And, yes, that's pretty much who I am.

But that's not all I am. I don't consider myself a hero. I don't consider myself anything higher than a soldier who was doing my job in the military.

BUCKLEY: A supply clerk and a cook who served.

Frank Buckley, CNN, Phoenix, Arizona.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And we'll talk to Jessica Lynch a little bit later in this hour.

Coming up on the program, two soldiers, two heroes you probably never heard of.

And later, we'll take a look at the newspaper headlines from the days that surrounded the capture and the release of the men and women of the 507th. Around the world, this is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: The fog of war lingers. It would take time for what happened in Nasiriyah to emerge. As hero's stories go, Jessica Lynch was hard to resist: a petite young woman fighting as hard as she could until the enemy captured her. A great story, just not a true one, as Ms. Lynch would herself point out as soon as she could.

But as time would tell, there were true heroes in the 507th. Two would be awarded Silver Stars for their bravery under fire. From the Pentagon, here's CNN's Jamie McIntyre.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Family photos document the 33 years of Army Sergeant Donald Walters life. From beloved son loving father to unsung hero.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is his silver star, and his citation.

MCINTYRE: His parents Arlene and Norman had hoped his job would keep their son from the front lines.

ARLENE WALTERS, MOTHER OF DONALD WALTERS: I said, well, Don, you're a cook. I thought he would be in a big tent cooking. And he said, mom, he says, that doesn't matter. I've got a gun, if I have to use it, I'll have to use it.

MCINTYRE: There were no American witnesses to Walter's valor. After his supply truck was disabled early on, no one knows exactly how he got separated from the rest of the 507th. But now Army investigators have concluded he fought his way south and was only captured after expending all his ammunition and being stabbed several times.

NORMAN WALTERS, FATHER OF DONALD WALTERS: He had 230 rounds of ammunition with him. To our knowledge, he used every last one of those rounds until he was no longer able to resist.

MCINTYRE: The circumstances mirror the heroics falsely attributed to Private Jessica Lynch, who never fired a shot. After almost a year and a legal request for information, the Army told the Walters family this new version of events.

A. WALTERS: The thing that upset me so much that I could never understand was, well, then, who was this brave American soldier?

MCINTYRE (on camera): Empty shell casings found where Walters was captured along with intercepted radio transmissions in which Iraqis were heard talking about a blond soldier who fought bravely are the main evidence that Walters was the real hero that day.

But he wasn't the only hero: A Silver Star was also awarded to a 23-year-old private who earned the affectionate nickname Redneck Rambo.

(voice-over): According to fellow soldiers Shoshana Johnson who was hit while taking cover, Private Patrick Miller dodged bullets fearlessly while rushing to protect his fellow soldiers. The Army thinks Miller killed as many as nine Iraqis before his sergeant decided further resistance was futile.

Most of the soldiers' guns jammed that day, but Miller got his working, as he explained in a 2003 interview with Paula Zahn.

PATRICK MILLER: My round, it would fire and eject the casing, but it wouldn't push the next round all the way into the chamber. So I had to push on the forward assist to get the bolt to push the round all the way into the chamber.

MCINTYRE: Miller made it home to tell his story, but Walters did not. Allegedly, a few days after his capture, Fedayeen fighters shot him twice in the back in a case that remains under investigation as a war crime.

In Salem, Oregon, a yellow ribbon still hangs outside the Walters family home, and nearby a memorial is inscribed had his thoughts from a letter home. A. WALTERS: "I would lay down my life for my family and nation if it is worth it, and this one is to let them appreciate the taste of their freedoms. Freedom isn't free, and someone must do what they must to preserve it. The Bible states, blessed is he who lays down his life for the sake of his friends. I fear not. And I'm motivated by the fear of the unknown. And being a part of a bigger picture. Whatever doesn't' kill you will make you stronger."

MCINTYRE: Sergeant Walters wrote those words one week before he died.

Jamie McIntyre, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: In a moment, the price paid. Stories of the fallen and their families. We'll take a break first. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: There were moments early on when the war seemed to rush by in a choppy, dusty blur. The impression was of coalition soldiers not just outflanking the enemy, but outrunning the danger, as well. The picture, of course, would change. The war would catch up.

It would catch up to the sons, and daughters, and moms, and dads of those lost in the convoy. So their stories now, 11 in all, from NEWSNIGHT's Beth Nissen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Specialist James Kiehl was 6'8", excelled at basketball, played trumpet in his high school marching band in Comfort, Texas.

When he left for Iraq, his wife was pregnant. He left behind a teddy bear that played a message he recorded for his unborn son. "Hello, baby. Daddy loves you." His son, Nathaniel, was born two months after Kiehl died. He was 22.

Specialist Jamal Addison (ph) was from Roswell, Georgia, enlisted in the Army for computer training and work experience, wanted to start his own business one day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He told me, you know, just be strong. And when we hung up the phone, it was -- you could feel him just, you know, hanging on.

NISSEN: He was newly married with a young stepson, 2-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter. He was 22.

One of Sergeant Edward Anguiano's prized possessions was a red electric guitar. He liked both heavy metal music and Mexican polkas. At Christmas, he'd buy toys for neighbor children in the poor south Texas farming community of Los Fresnos where he grew up. The Army was his ticket to see the world. He was with the 3rd Infantry Division attached to the 507th. He was 24.

Sergeant George Buggs was raised by his grandparents in rural Barnwell, South Carolina. He struggled with asthma as a child, tried anyway to play trumpet, then tuba. Met his wife at band camp. He had a son, 12. He loved the Army, said his wife, and all the things it could offer. He, too, was with the 3rd I.D., attached to the 507th. He was 31.

Private Ruben Estrella-Soto was a naturalized citizen born in Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He told me that, yes, he would be ready and, you know, he would risk his life, no matter what to, you know, to fight for this country.

NISSEN: A mechanic's son from a tough neighborhood near El Paso that didn't get running water until 2002, he enlisted for college money, a better life. Had a fiancee he planned to marry as soon as he got back from Iraq. He was 18.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you hear and read about casualties or something happening to someone that you don't know, that's one thing. But to have it come to your hometown, it's quite different.

NISSEN: Master Sergeant Robert Dowdy was an 18-year Army veteran, just 18 months short of retirement. He'd lettered in five sports in high school, was a win or lose fan of the Cleveland Indians. He had a wife and 14-year-old daughter. He was 38.

Private first-class Howard Johnson II enlisted two weeks after graduating from high school in Mobile, Alabama, aspired to the rank of sergeant major.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's my baby. He's my soldier. He's my prince. He's my hero.

NISSEN: Just days before he died, he told a favorite teacher in a letter that, after weeks in the desert, he'd finally had a bath and it felt like Christmas, he wrote. He was 21.

Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata grew up in Pecos, Texas, joined the Army as a teenager. He wanted to make it a career. He had a magic touch with vehicles, electrical systems, engine mechanics. July 4th every year, he and his wife, 16-year-old son, and 7-year-old daughter would go to the rodeo, go country dancing. He was 35.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ready to go, I guess.

NISSEN: Private first-class Lori Piestewa grew up in a mobile home near Tuba City, Arizona, on mesa land farmed for centuries by the Hopi Indian tribe, her tribe. She was a single mother, had a 4-year- old son and 3-year-old daughter, was the first American servicewoman killed in the war in Iraq. She was 23.

Private Brandon Sloan was from Bedford Heights, Ohio, the son and grandson of Baptist preachers. He was a defensive lineman on his high school football team, dropped out of high school to enlist. The Army, say his closest friends, gave him new life. He was 19.

Sergeant Donald Walters had been in and out of the Army and the Reserves since the year after high school, had served in the Gulf War in '91, reenlisted after 9/11. He'd grown up in Salem, Oregon, had a lifelong love of fishing, had written a children's book about a fishing trip. He had three young daughters, all under the age of 8.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our daughters will have closure and know that their father is a hero and he did all these wonderful things.

NISSEN: He didn't believe he'd come back from Iraq. He told his father in a phone call shortly before he died to order his casket. He was 33.

Eleven American soldiers, eleven lost in the first days, the first chaotic rush of the war in Iraq.

Beth Nissen, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Just a postscript to that. Years ago, being a single parent was pretty much a disqualification for military service. Then, as the military changed, and so did the economy, single parenthood became a motivation, the military a place to learn and grow.

And then the world changed, and single parents who signed up for the job soon found themselves at war. And one of them, as we just mentioned, was Lori Piestewa. Her story now in more detail from CNN's Rusty Dornin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Feeding his horse, Arapaho, is a bittersweet chore for Terry Piestewa, a gift from the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes to honor Piestewa's daughter, Lori, who was killed in the first few weeks of the Iraq war. As a Hopi, Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in a foreign war.

TERRY PIESTEWA, FATHER: They give the highest honor to the warriors. The top honor is the horse and a rifle.

DORNIN: Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, vistas so wide the sky still meets the road in some places. It's beautiful.

TERRY PIESTEWA: Lori used to do all her running and ride her three-wheeler out this way.

DORNIN: Desolate and dirt poor, not many options for a single mom with two children. So Lori Piestewa, known for her independent spirit, joined the Army for an education and a job, never dreaming she would end up in a war.

(on-screen): Did she know in her heart why she was go going?

TERRY PIESTEWA: No, I don't think anybody did, because everything was kind of scary.

DORNIN (voice-over): Days before she was sent to Iraq, Piestewa is seen here with her children and her parents. She told a reporter family was sacred.

LORI PIESTEWA, KILLED IN IRAQ: Important to me, like knowing that my family is going to be taken care of.

DORNIN: Now Lori's parents take care of her 5-year-old daughter, Carla, and 6-year-old son Brandon.

PERCY PIESTEWA, MOTHER: There's not a day that goes by that we don't remember mom, even at feeding time when we eat.

DORNIN: On the table, a Hopi tradition, a small pot where families offer food for their ancestors and special prayers for Lori. Their house is filled with gifts and remembrances, especially from other Native Americans.

TERRY PIESTEWA: They claimed Lori as one of theirs, you know, because when they speak of Lori, when they introduce us, or when they're talking about her, they'll say "one of our sisters," you know, "our warrior."

DORNIN: Two years later, the gifts still come. As a surprise, someone brings a plaque honoring Lori to her mother at work.

(on-screen): You surround yourself with pictures of Lori...

PERCY PIESTEWA: Yes.

DORNIN: Everywhere.

PERCY PIESTEWA: Pretty much for me just to know that she's there. Well, I know she's there anyway, you know, through the Catholic religion. I know she's going to be there. She's going to take care of us. She's going to let me know when I'm not doing good by her kids, I'm sure.

DORNIN (voice-over): Despite the honors, despite the pride, her daughter is gone.

PERCY PIESTEWA: She was like that. She was always smiling, you know? And I was very fortunate. A lot of mothers don't have a good mother-daughter relationship. And we had that. And when you lose somebody like that, you lose a big part of yourself.

TERRY PIESTEWA: Hopefully, that her life wasn't wasted in vain.

DORNIN: You still support the war?

TERRY PIESTEWA: I support the troops. I don't know about the war itself, because I don't know what the outcome's going to come. I'm just hoping that it will -- the outcome will be positive.

DORNIN: For Lori's father, Hopi tradition says his daughter will come back to visit the family. They only have to look to the skies.

TERRY PIESTEWA: In Hopi belief, she's in the clouds. We believe that, when they pass on, they become clouds. When we pray to them, we ask them to bring some of their -- you know, the rain to us.

DORNIN: A woman, a warrior, a hero, and something else.

PERCY PIESTEWA: There's that sense, I think, for the Native American people especially that she's there to take care of everybody. She's become the guardian angel. Yes. Yes, she has. She's our guardian angel, huh? Yes, huh?

DORNIN: Rusty Dornin, CNN, Tuba City, Arizona.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, her story before, during, and since. Jessica Lynch joins us. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The United States' first presidential assassination happened this week in history, on April 14th, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes booth while watching a play at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. Lincoln died the next morning.

It was set to be unsinkable. However, the Titanic failed to complete its first journey with passengers from England to New York. Just before midnight on April 14th, 1912, the ocean-liner collided with an iceberg and later sank into the North Atlantic. More than 1,500 people lost their lives.

And he was considered to be the architect of Cambodia's killing field. Ousted leader Pol Pot died from natural causes while under house arrest in 1998.

And that is "This Week in History."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Erica Hill. We'll rejoin a special edition of NEWSNIGHT with Aaron Brown in just a moment. But first, let's get you caught up on the headlines.

A record number of arrests, following a massive fugitive round- up. Today, law enforcement officials announced details of Operation FALCON. U.S. marshals coordinated the nationwide effort, which nabbed more than 10,000 fugitives. Hundreds were wanted for violent crimes, including murder and rape. A U.S. Air National Guard pilot and master sergeant are behind bars accused of smuggling ecstasy during an official mission. Authorities say the pair used a cargo plane to smuggle up to 290,000 pills worth millions of dollars into the U.S. from Germany. Federal agents arrested them on Tuesday after they landed at a New York military base with the drugs on board.

And President Bush has ushered in a new sports era for Washington D.C. after throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener tonight. The Nats, formerly known as the Montreal Expos, started things off with a win, beating the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3.

And that is the latest from Headline News. I'm Erica Hill. We return you now to a special edition of NEWSNIGHT with Aaron Brown.

BROWN: Jessica Lynch lost ten buddies in the desert. She lost her best friend, Lori Piestewa. Two years later, Ms. Lynch still bears the wounds and the scars of her time in Iraq. She also has quite a future planned for herself and Lori's two children. And Ms. Lynch joins us now from Petersburg, West Virginia.

It's nice to see you. How you doing? How you feel?

JESSICA LYNCH, FORMER POW: Hi. Thank you. I feel great.

BROWN: How is the recovery process going?

LYNCH: It's definitely been slow, but I can see things progressing every day, so very well.

BROWN: What's hard to do still?

LYNCH: Just the little things, you know, like I can't run still or be able to walk long distance without a cane.

BROWN: Are they encouraging, in terms of your -- or getting back to pretty much full mobility?

LYNCH: At this point, it's getting less than what they expected, but, you know, I still have hope that everything will return to normal.

BROWN: Yes, on the subject of everything returning back to normal, do you ever wish you could just become Jessica Lynch, not Jessica Lynch, former prisoner of war, not Jessica Lynch, who was rescued, but just Jessica Lynch?

LYNCH: Oh, definitely. You know, every day. But I wouldn't change anything that happened. I would, you know -- I'd want to go back time and, you know, bring back Lori and the other soldiers who had died that day. But it's part of who I am now. And I've learned to deal with it.

BROWN: When you think about it now -- I assume in one respect or another, you have to think about it some. Does it seem like those days were endless, or does it seem like it all happened in a heartbeat? How does it seem to you two years later?

LYNCH: The drive across through Iraq was -- you know, it felt like it was taking days, an entire lifetime. But once we got into the ambush, you know, it was just -- it ended as quick as it happened.

BROWN: And there must have been a moment where you realized that you were about to be rescued. How did that moment happen? What were you doing when you first became aware that something extraordinary was about to happen?

LYNCH: Well, I was laying, you know, alone in the hospital bed in Iraq. And I could hear helicopters, and gunshots, and bombs, you know, going off in the background. And then, you know, the next thing I knew, there was soldiers inside the building screaming, you know, "Where's Private Lynch?"

And the next thing I knew, they were standing by my bed. And one soldier actually ripped off the name -- or the American flag off of his shoulder and handed it to me in my left hand. And you know, I gripped his hand all the way to the helicopter. He looked at me, and he said, "We're American soldiers, and we're here to take you home," you know? So that, I responded, "I'm an American soldier, too."

BROWN: Do you remember what you were thinking? Were you crying? What was going through your mind?

LYNCH: Scared, definitely. I was scared because I was unsure if it was, you know, that moment that I would be rescued or if it was Saddam's people, Fedayeen, or just, you know, Iraqis wanting to kill me.

BROWN: I think everybody who followed the story -- the most important part of the story has always been that you got out alive, and the circumstances and the rest are just the details. It's good to see you. You look great, and we hope that...

LYNCH: Thank you.

BROWN: ... you get to live out all the dreams you had before you went in and those you've developed since. Nice to meet you.

LYNCH: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you. Jessica Lynch.

In a moment, what morning papers looked like two years ago. This is a special edition of NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: OK, time to check morning papers from two years ago. First, on the day after -- the Monday after the capture of and the ambush of the 507, it happened on a Sunday. We remember reporting that day, honestly, as if it were yesterday.

"The Washington Times": "Fight for Southern Iraq Turns Fierce; 12 U.S. Soldiers Killed or Captured." "U.S. Calls Footage of POWs Disgusting." "Casualties Mount on Tough Day for Allies." The pictures that we all watched on Arab television that day, and they were not easy to watch.

"The Des Moines Register" that day, on the Monday, the 24th of March, 2003: "U.S. Has Deadly Setbacks; Troops Killed, Taken Prisoner in Bloody Day of Fighting."

"The Miami Herald," straight-ahead lede: "Grim Day for U.S." is how they led on that Monday.

On the 2nd of April, "The New York Times," in the middle of the page, "Commandos Rescue Soldier; She was Held Since Ambush." That's the Jessica Lynch rescue. The headline that day in the "Times": "U.S. Forces Enter Zone to Confront Republican Guard; Battle for Baghdad Begins in Areas Surrounding Iraqi Capital."

And then the day of the rescue, or the day after, Monday, April 14th. The headline in the "Miami Herald": "POWs Feared Execution; 'We Could Feel Iraq was Collapsing.'

"The Tampa Tribune," Tampa is home to CENTCOM, so this would be -- it was a huge story everywhere. It would be even bigger there. "Seven POWs Rescued, Families Rejoice." Pretty good picture on the front page.

"Chicago Sun-Times," we always end there, and we will on this one. "We Got Them; Seven American POWs Safe After Being Found Near Tikrit; Three Wounded."

Two years ago. We'll wrap it up in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: A really interesting program that our guys put together tonight. Good to have you with us. Until next time, good night for all of us.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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