Lori Piestewa 1979-2003
Lori Piestewa. Over the years I have said that name over and over to myself. It is rather lyrical. For some reason it has been easy to remember over the last 10 years. Some names are easy to remember while others tend to evaporate as soon as you say them. One example is Gene Hackman. As much as I like the actor, and much of his work, he has one of those names that never seems to stick. I either have to be reminded of his name, or I have to struggle to find it in my memory.
Lori Piestewa was not like that from the first time I heard it. Unfortunately, the first time I heard the name Lori Piestewa was the announcement of her death. Lori Piestewa was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military.
After ten years, I still pause to absorb the significance of that fact. The basic facts of the matter are simple. The United States had invaded Iraq. The United States Army, and combatants in opposition from Iraq, presumably their military, came into contact with one another and combat ensued. As I recall, Piestewa drove in one of those long supply chains that were necessary because the U.S. had no agreement from other allied nations to allow for simpler logistical arrangements, so the U.S. had to supply itself with long drives from Basra in the South.
In one of these long, vulnerable supply chains, the convoy was attacked. This was the attack where Jessica Lynch was taken and held as a prisoner. Lori Piestewa was wounded in the head in this attack. Had they been in the rear somewhere, Piestewa could have received emergency surgery that might have saved her life. Hospitals in combat zones are not as well outfitted, and have unreliable power, so the neurosurgery necessary for her survival was not possible. Lori Piestewa died.
It is of profound significance to me that Lori Piestewa is the daughter of a full blooded Hopi man. Our country, Lori’s and ours, has a complex history with Native Americans, to put it mildly. It is of profound significance to me that a Native American woman died in combat in service of this country.
War is a horrible thing. I don’t say that from experience. I never went to war. For me it is an academic understanding. War is a brutal and rather costly exercise when diplomacy breaks down. Truths get lost and obscured. Intentions and justifications become cloaked in nationalistic nonsense for a variety of less than honorable reasons.
It is important to separate out wars from warriors. Warriors are doing their professional thing for the right reasons, for the most part. People like Lori Piestewa step up and take a turn to preserve all that is good or potentially good about our country. They deserve that credit because the good is preserved at the same time that other more powerful actors may be doing the wrong thing. The flesh and blood volunteering to go into harm’s way, in combat, manages to hold our country together while we reconvene each morning and try to do better, to make a more perfect union. It comes in fits and starts.
As ugly and tragic as war is, we continue to have young people who want to contribute. We have restricted who may serve over the years, and thus qualified their value to our country. This qualification is on paper, of course. It was official. It is what we would allow ourselves to confess publicly, irrespective of the truths.
Lori Piestewa is truth. Lori Piestewa was killed in combat, working in a combat zone, nearly a full ten years before we would officially allow that women serve in combat. It is not that we would not admit it, we just, as a matter of policy, would not admit them...to combat.
Today, the Secretary of Defense will remove the ban that says women may not serve in combat billets. As I understand it, some restrictions will remain. Actual infantry positions will remain closed, but that is only a matter of time. We will still have to reconvene daily in an effort to make this a more perfect nation. That effort will probably go on forever. I think it probably should. The best of our wisdom about what is a just society can’t be known for all time to come. We are not building a religion, but rather a society that is inclusive and works for the people, all of the people. And while we have extracted the service of women in this society from its earliest point, we have not fully acknowledged it. This step is just one more step in the right direction. As recently as a few months ago, we could have taken backward steps. We did the right thing for “the people” by choosing as we did.