A veteran British reporter and the U.S. Defense Department are standing behind their conflicting versions of the recovery of Pfc. Jessica Lynch following a documentary alleging the military staged a blockbuster rescue to bolster support for the war in Iraq.
Last weekend’s edition of “Correspondents,” the BBC’s flagship foreign affairs program, featured interviews by reporter John Kampfner with Iraqi doctors. The physicians claimed that U.S. Special Forces knew there were no fighters inside the Nasiriyah hospital when they stormed it April 2.
More pointedly, they said the troops were not fired on outside the hospital and the doctors accused the troops of shooting blanks for the sake of drama. Doctors also said they had earlier tried to deliver Lynch to the Americans via ambulance but were fired on and forced to turn around — a claim also reported by CNN and others.
The doctors also said Lynch suffered no bullet or stab wounds, contrary to early news reports. The BBC called the night-vision footage and resulting patriotic fervor “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”
Kampfner has said he asked the military for an unedited tape of the event, but his request was denied.
The Pentagon this week denied any attempt at theatrics.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Media Operations Bryan Whitman was interviewed on CNN International on Friday.
“[U.S. forces] went into a contested area in combat, in a hostile environment, they did receive fire going into that area, and this was a mission that was very well-planned, excellently executed and accomplished its mission of being able to bring out one of our POWs,” Whitman said.
“And the insinuation — well, there are many allegations in John’s piece — I guess the most egregious insinuation … is that we would’ve conducted this operation for anything other than the intended purpose of bringing home one of our own.”
Dr. Anmar Uday’s BBC account accused the U.S. troops of B-movie excess.
“It was like a Hollywood film,” Uday said in the BBC report. “They cried, ‘Go, Go, Go!’ with guns and blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show, an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down doors.”
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks has said from Qatar that U.S. forces were not fired on inside the hospital, but confirmed they fought nearby.
When contacted by Stripes, BBC News said Kampfner would do no additional interviews on the piece and had moved on to another project. Kampfner did appear on CNN, however, where he defended his work and more broadly criticized the U.S. military’s handling of reporters.
“In our film, the British military spokesman, who figured very much in BBC, CNN and all the international broadcasters’ coverage of the war, told us on camera that he was deeply unhappy with the American media handling,” Kampfner said. “And he said to us, ‘There were two different styles of media management, there was the American one and the British one, and I was pleased to be part of the British one.’ And that, to me, that’s a pretty damning indictment.”
The Pentagon also has said early reports that Lynch had been shot or stabbed were media blunders. The stories had quoted anonymous military sources.
The Washington Post, in particular, painted a scene of smoke and valor, reporting that Lynch had spent her ammunition repelling Iraqi capturers and surviving both bullet and blade. The news of Lynch’s resistance and capture was widely reported with banner headlines. The BBC documentary was not widely covered.
In Friday’s Post, columnist Richard Cohen criticized his paper for not actively correcting any early and flawed reporting of the capture or rescue.
“Lynch apparently was not shot,” Cohen wrote. “Lynch was not stabbed. Lynch may not have put up much of a fight, maybe none at all. The lights may have gone out for her the moment her unit was attacked and her vehicle went off the road. It was then, probably, that she suffered several broken bones.”
On Friday, a Yahoo! news search turned up 43 stories about Lynch — mostly about disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s having never visited her home despite feigning a description in a story. One commentary piece, from USA Today, cited Lynch’s pluck as reason the military should allow women to serve in combat units and with the Special Forces.
There were no mentions of the controversy over accounts of Lynch’s capture or rescue.
Marie Shaw, a spokeswoman for Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where Lynch was treated after leaving Iraq, said the 19-year-old suffered from fractures to both legs, her right and ankle and lower spine. She also suffered head lacerations.
“The gunshot wound was never clear,” Shaw said, adding that Lynch’s records had been moved with her to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Command Sgt. Maj. Kiki Bryant, who handles questions about Lynch at Walter Reed, said doctors found no bullets or shrapnel, but that some wounds were initially believed to have been potentially caused by “low velocity gunfire.”
Lynch’s father has said his daughter had been neither shot nor stabbed.
What exactly happened, from Lynch’s perspective, may never be known. A recent Walter Reed press release said that while Lynch does not have amnesia per se, she cannot remember the events between the ambush and her awakening inside the Iraqi hospital.
“We’re not worried about when she can tell her story,” her father, Greg Lynch Sr., said in the release.
“She’ll tell it when she’s ready. We just want her to get better.”
— Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.