MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jessica Lynch was just 19 when the world first saw her — a broken, blond soldier caught on combat video in Iraq, her face wearing something between a grimace and a grin.
The Army supply clerk was being carried on a stretcher after nine days as a prisoner of war. She had been captured along with five others after the 507th Maintenance Company took a wrong turn and came under attack in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Eleven of her fellow soldiers died.
Lynch had joined the Army at 18 to earn money for college and become a school teacher. This Friday, at 28, she completes that mission.
She spent Thursday finishing her training as a student teacher at the same elementary school she attended in sparsely populated Wirt County. Then, on badly damaged legs and a right foot that still pains her, she'll walk across a stage Friday evening and get her education degree from West Virginia University at Parkersburg.
"It's tough to walk, but I look at it as, 'At least I'm walking,'" she says. "At least I have my legs. They may not work. I have no feeling in the left one. But it's attached, at least. ... At least I'm alive."
Nearly 4,500 Americans died. The first woman lost was Lynch's friend and fellow soldier, 23-year-old Army Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa of Arizona, killed in the convoy attack.
"Knowing she died right beside me and that could fairly well have been me brings a whole new perspective," Lynch said. "You're just thankful for what you've been given, even if it's not what you wanted."
Today, Lynch and longtime boyfriend Wes Robinson are parents to 5-year-old Dakota, whose name honors her fallen American Indian friend. Marriage, she says, is in the plan, but there's no rush. What matters is the comfort she finds in her family. They are there when she's overcome by stress or shaken by the nightmares that still sometimes come.
"By looking at me through a picture, you'd never know anything is wrong," she said. "I fake it. But my family, my friends ... they know when I'm really in pain."
When she was rescued, the U.S. government used footage of Lynch to spin a tale that exaggerated the truth. To make her seem more heroic and rally public support for the war, the military claimed she'd gone down firing — when, in fact, her rifle had jammed. She wrote a book, "I Am A Soldier, Too," with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, and has repeatedly worked to set the record straight.
"The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes," she told Congress in 2007, "and they don't need to be told elaborate lies."
And the lies cost her. For a long time, she got hate mail. Some said she'd done nothing to deserve the attention or the title of hero. She once told Glamour magazine she felt like "the most hated person in America."
Every now and then, after a high-profile appearance, a hateful missive still arrives.
"They say things like, 'Who do you think you are? That was so eight years ago,'" Lynch said. "I just don't respond. It just doesn't bother me anymore. It used to, because I couldn't understand why people were hating me. I was just a soldier like the 100,000 others over there."
Literally and figuratively, she said, she now has a stronger backbone. "I just let things roll off."
Lynch said she'll take a semester off to travel and spend time with Dakota before the child starts school. Lynch hopes to start work soon on a master's degree in communications.
She'll also continue her speaking engagements with children and with veterans' groups. At those events, without fail, the most common question is whether she was shot.
"I can't answer because I don't even know myself," she says. "There's never been actual proof."
The crash of her Humvee is believed to have caused her injuries, which also included spinal fractures, nerve damage and a shattered right arm.
Sometimes Lynch is paid for her appearances. Often, she asks the audience to donate to Jessi's Pals, a venture she launched to provide blankets and stuffed animals to patients at WVU Children's Hospital.
Awkward questions aside, she thrives on the interaction of those three to five lectures a month. Four years ago, Lynch said she wanted to bow out of the spotlight and have a normal life. But now, attention is normal.
She is often recognized. Sometimes she's caught with a mouthful of food as people speak to her and try to touch her. She is no longer annoyed. She embraces it. She says hello and introduces herself to people who know her face but can't quite place it.
"Honestly, it does surprise me that so many people still are familiar with the story. I sometimes get taken aback when I hear people talking about it because it's like reading it in a book," Lynch said. "I forget, 'That's me.'"
If her fame has one benefit, it's the reminder that people are still thinking about U.S. troops, at home and overseas.
"And that's good," Lynch said, "because they still need our prayers just like they did nine or 10 years ago."