Thursday 10 April 2003

What about Private Lori?

For the last week America has been gripped by the 'Saving Private Jessica' mission. But nobody wanted to hear the sadder story of her friend and tentmate Private Lori Piestewa, who died in combat.

by Gary Younge

This is the tale of two privates. They were sisters-in-arms - two young women fighting for Uncle Sam. They were roommates at Fort Bliss military base in Texas; tentmates in the Gulf, and close friends at all places in between. Then they (and 13 other members of the US Army's 507th Maintenance Company) took a wrong turn in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya and were ambushed. One, Jessica Lynch, 19, was injured, hospitalised and then rescued by Special Forces to emerge as the poster girl for American resilience and camaraderie. The other, Lori Piestewa, 23, was killed, with the gruesome distinction of being the first native American in the US army to be killed in combat and the only American servicewoman to die in this war.

On the face of it, Piestewa, from the Hopi tribe, does not fit the bill for the all-American war hero or heroine. She was a single mother of two who left her four-year-old son, Brandon, and three-year-old daughter, Carla, with her parents who live in a trailer in Tuba City, Arizona while she went to fight in the Middle East. But, in more ways than one, hers is the other American face of this war, fought by a military whose ranks have been swelled by poor, non-white women. A volunteer army comprising recruits who, whatever their patriotic credentials, have few other choices.

Tuba City is home mostly to Navajo people although it sits on the edge of a Hopi reservation - a piece of land returned to native Americans by the federal government. In theory, they are independent nations entering into bilateral treaties with the US government; in practice most reservations are situated on poor land with limited independence and home to the most impoverished minority in the country.

The Hopi land is no exception - a vast expanse of hundreds of miles of red rock and yellow sand peppered with trailers and brick housing that would not look out of place in a South African township. A nation of tumbleweed and tumbledown, where more than 50% of the inhabitants are unemployed.

It was not just the poverty of the reservation that made the armed forces an attractive proposition for Piestewa. Serving in the military is a family tradition. Her father fought in Vietnam and her grandfather served in the second world war. As a 17-year-old, she was the commanding officer of the Junior ROTC (cadet) programme at Tuba City High School, leading dozens of students in drills. Two years later she married a local man but divorced him shortly after Carla was born. She then joined the army partly out of an interest in the job, neighbours say, but primarily to provide a secure income with which to raise her children.

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