W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 22, 2011 at 8:05 am

Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of the deadly ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, an engagement so poorly reported by the Washington Post that it catapulted Jessica Lynch to undeserved international fame – and obscured the heroism of an Army sergeant who was captured, then killed.

The Post published an electrifying, front-page account of Lynch’s supposed heroics in the battle of March 23, 2003. The report appeared beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death,’” and said Lynch had fought fiercely before being overwhelmed and captured by Iraqi attackers.

But the Post hero-warrior tale about Lynch was erroneous.

Botched.

Because of the apparent mistranslation of battlefield radio intercepts, the deeds the Post misattributed to Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, most likely were those of a 33-year-old cook-sergeant named Donald Walters.

Like Lynch, Walters was assigned to the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, elements of which came under attack at Nasiriyah in March 2003, during the first days of the Iraq War.

Walters (right), a veteran of the Gulf War in 1991, either was left behind or stayed behind as his fellow soldiers tried to escape.

Perhaps the most detailed account of the ambush at Nasiriyah appears in Richard Lowry’s masterful work, Marines in the Garden of Eden.

In the book, Lowry wrote:

“We will never really know the details of Walters’ horrible ordeal. We do know that he risked his life to save his comrades and was separated from the rest of the convoy, deep in enemy territory. We know that he fought until he could no longer resist.”

Walters is believed to have fired 201 M-16 rounds at his attackers.

He was captured and executed by Iraqi irregulars.

His killers, so far as is known, have never been caught.

But how did Walters’ heroism come to confounded with the actions of Lynch — who later said she never fired a shot during the ambush? (Lynch cowered in the back seat of a Humvee as it tried to escape the Iraqi attack.)

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year:

“The probable sources of confusion were Iraqi radio communications that the U.S. forces intercepted. These communications reportedly included references to a blond American soldier’s fierce resistance in the fighting at Nasiriyah.

“In translating the intercepted reports to English, the pronoun ‘he’ was mistaken for ‘she.’ As Lynch was the only blonde woman in the 507th, the battlefield heroics were initially attributed to her, not Walters.”

And drawing on information sources it has never revealed, the Post published its erroneous account of Lynch’s derring-do.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that a brigade commander named Colonel Heidi Brown offered the explanation about the mistranslation, in an interview broadcast in 2004 on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program.

Brown said on the program: “What I was told was that it was just a faulty translation, but it made for everyone … to make a huge assumption that it was Jessica Lynch, when, in fact it probably — but you know, no one knows for sure. It probably was Sergeant Walters.”

I also note in Getting It Wrong that Walters’ actions, “when they became known, attracted little more than passing interest from the American news media — certainly nothing akin to the intensity of the Lynch coverage after the Post’s ‘fighting to the death’ story appeared.”

The Post article about Lynch’s supposed heroism, which appeared April 3, 2003, set off an avalanche of similar news coverage in news outlets across the United States and around the world. It was an irresistible, cinematic tale — a waiflike teenager pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, much like a female Rambo.

The Post never fully explained how it got the story so badly wrong, and offered but scant interest in the real hero at Nasiriyah.

A database search of Post articles published since April 2003 revealed just three stories in which Walters’ name was mentioned. None of those articles discussed in any detail his bravery at Nasiriyah.

The Army eventually acknowledged that Walters’ conduct “likely prevented his unit from suffering additional casualties and loss of life” and posthumously awarded him the Silver Star — the military’s third-highest decoration for valor.

WJC

Recent and related:

But how was it that Lynch came to be confused with Walters, who was slim, ruddy, and 33-years-old? The probable sources of confusion were Iraqi radio communications that the U.S. forces intercepted. These communications reportedly included references to a blond American soldier’s fierce resistance in the fighting at Nasiriyah. In translating the intercepted reports to English, the pronoun “he” was mistaken for “she.” As Lynch was the only blonde woman in the 507th, the battlefield heroics were initially attributed to her, not Walters.[i] A brigade commander, Colonel Heidi Brown, offered that explanation in an interview broadcast in 2004 on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program. “What I was told,” Brown said, “was that it was just a faulty translation, but it made for everyone … to make a huge assumption that it was Jessica Lynch, when, in fact it probably—but you know, no one knows for sure. It probably was Sergeant Walters 


[i] Lowry, Marines in the Garden of Eden, 134. Lowry wrote that Walters “was left in a situation that could have easily turned into the Iraqi radio report.”

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  1. [...] Read the original here: Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn't Jessica Lynch « Media … [...]

  2. [...] . . and embarrassed young Jessica Lynch by attributing Donald Walters’ fierce fighting to her. The Post article about Lynch’s supposed heroism, which appeared April 3, 2003, set off an [...]

  3. [...] Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch [...]

  4. [...] Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch [...]

  5. [...] The tale of Lynch’s heroics turned out to be utterly false, a case of apparent mistaken identity. Although the Post never adequately addressed how it got the story so thoroughly wrong, the battlefield heroics it attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of a cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit, Donald Walters. [...]

  6. [...] in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit at Nasiriyah, in southern [...]

  7. [...] it astray on the infamous tale it placed in the public domain about Jessica Lynch’s supposed battlefield heroics in [...]

  8. [...] from where she was rescued by a U.S. commando team on April 1, 2003. The Post’s bogus hero-warrior story came out two days [...]

  9. [...] Recalling the hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch [...]

  10. [...] exclusive though obviously unwanted distinction of having brought the world the bogus story about Jessica Lynch and her battlefield heroics during the early days of the Iraq War. Private Lynch, [...]

  11. [...] to note that the Post never has come clean about how it erred so utterly in offering the world the bogus hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq [...]

  12. [...] that the Washington Post so thoroughly eludes censure for placing the bogus hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch into the public domain during the first days of the Iraq [...]

  13. [...] attention from the Army sergeant who apparently did fight to the death at Nasiriyah. He was Donald Walters, who laid down covering fire as elements of the 507th tried to flee the [...]

  14. [...] upshot of the false narrative is that it has obscured wide recognition of a real hero at Nasiriyah, a sergeant in Lynch’s unit named Donald Walters. Sgt. [...]

  15. [...] online of the Post’s embarrassingly wrong-headed reports in 2003 about Jessica Lynch and her supposed heroism early in the Iraq [...]

  16. [...] Recalling the real hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch [...]

  17. [...] Recalling the real hero of Nasiriyah: It wasn’t Jessica Lynch [...]

  18. [...] identify: The exploits the Post erroneously attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of Donald R. Walters, an unsung cook-sergeant in Lynch’s [...]

  19. [...] story turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the attack at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the deadly ambush in [...]

  20. […] story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which […]

  21. […] Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq […]

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