Published on January 30, 2013 by Amy
SPC Lori Ann Piestewa (pron.: /paɪˈɛstəwɑː/ py-ess-tə-wah; December 14, 1979 – March 23, 2003) was a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps soldier killed during the same Iraqi Army attack in which fellow soldiers Shoshana Johnson and Jessica Lynch sustained injuries. A member of the Hopi tribe, Piestewa was the first Native American woman in history to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces killed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Arizona’s Piestewa Peak is named in her honor.
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Piestewa was born in Tuba City, Arizona, to Terry Piestewa and Priscilla “Percy” Baca. Her father is a full-blooded Hopi Native American, her mother is a Mexican-American. The couple first met in 1964 and married in November 1968.
The Piestewa family had a long military tradition; her paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army in the European Theatre of World War II, and her father Terry Piestewa was drafted in the U.S. Army in September 1965 and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War before he returned home in March 1967.
The Piestewa family resided in a trailer park in Tuba City, a town located on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Coconino County. As a child, she was given the Hopi name Qötsa-Hon-Mana (Hopi pronunciation: White Bear Girl). Her surname is derived from a Hopi language root meaning “water pooled on the desert by a hard rain”; thus, Piestewa (Hopi: [piˈɛstɛwa]) translates loosely as “the people who live by the water.”
Piestewa was a member of the US Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, a support unit of maintenance and repair personnel. Her company was traveling in a convoy through the desert and was meant to bypass Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, during the opening days of the war; but the convoy got lost and ran into an ambush in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.
As Piestewa came under “a torrent of fire” (in the words of an Army investigation of the battle), she drove at a high speed, successfully evading the enemy fire until an RPG hit the front-left wheel well of her Humvee. The force of the explosion sent her vehicle into the rear of a disabled tractor-trailer. Piestewa, Johnson, and Lynch all survived the crash with injuries, while three other soldiers in the Humvee died. They were taken prisoner along with four others, with Piestewa dying soon after of her wounds. A video of some of the American prisoners of war, including Piestewa (filmed shortly before she died in an Iraqi hospital), was later shown around the world on Al Jazeera television. According to Jessica Lynch’s book—I’m a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story—Piestewa was wounded in the head, and it was impossible to perform delicate neurosurgery in an Iraqi civilian hospital in wartime conditions (such as intermittent electric power). In a U.S. military hospital with reliable power and neurosurgeons available around the clock, she might have survived.
The families of soldiers in the 507th heard almost right away of the ambush and fatalities in the unit. The Piestewa family saw people in her unit being interviewed by Iraqi TV, and for more than a week families of the two women waited for news. All around Tuba City signs were hung out telling people: “Put your porch light on, show Lori the way home.” They used white stone to spell her name on a 200 foot high mesa just outside the town.
Piestewa was awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal. The US Army posthumously promoted her from Private First Class to Specialist.
Jessica Lynch has repeatedly said that Piestewa is the true hero of the ambush and named her daughter Dakota Ann in honor of her fallen comrade. In addition, many entities have honored her memory with memorials. Arizona’s state government renamed Squaw Peak in the Phoenix Mountains near Phoenix as Piestewa Peak and this was codified by the US Board on Geographic Names on April 10, 2008; the freeway that passes near this mountain was also renamed in her honor. In addition, Senator Tom Daschle honored her, as did Indian Nations across America. Since her death, the Grand Canyon State Games organizers have held an annual Lori Piestewa National Native American Games, which brings participants from across the country. A plaque bearing her name is also located at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Fort Bliss, Texas. She has also been memorialized with a plaque and ceremony at Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in La Jolla, California. On November 10 American Legion Post No. 80 on the Hopi Reservation was renamed the Lori Piestewa Post # 80 in honor of this unselfish daughter of the Hopi. On 30 November 2011, the Directorate of Training Sustainment headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia was named Piestewa Hall in her honor.
Her death led to a rare joint prayer gathering between members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes, which have had a centuries-old rivalry.
In May 2005, Piestewa’s parents and children had a brand-new home built by Ty Pennington and his crew on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition accompanied by Jessica Lynch. They also built a new veterans’ center on the Navajo reservation.