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Report recounts last hours of Pfc. Lori Piestewa

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ARLINGTON, Va. - Grit, blood and confusion filled the last hours of Pfc. Lori Piestewa and the other members of the 507th Maintenance Company ambushed at an-Nasiriyah, said the U.S. Army in a recently released report.

Indian country continues to commemorate Piestewa, the first female tribal member known to die in combat in an overseas U.S. war, as a hero's welcome greeted her friend and roommate Jessica Lynch on her release from Walter Reed Army Medical Center July 22. In brief remarks on returning home to West Virginia, Lynch said she missed Piestewa most of all.

"She was my best friend," Lynch said. "She fought beside me and it was an honor to have served with her. Lori will always remain in my heart."

The Army report gave a harrowing account of the March 23 ambush that caught Lynch and Piestewa in the same vehicle. The intense battle left 11 U.S. soldiers dead and another seven in Iraqi hands.

Labeled "draft predecisional," the report left open several questions, including whether the U.S. would follow up the incident with war crimes trials. The report concluded without elaboration that Piestewa was seriously injured in the crash of a truck she was driving under heavy enemy fire "and died in captivity."

It pointedly noted that the deaths of two passengers in her truck "remain under investigation."

According to the report, the 507th convoy of 18 vehicles was last in a column of 600 when several wrong turns plunged it into a hornet's nest of Iraqi fire in the Euphrates River city of an-Nasiriyah.

In the dry language of the executive summary, "The company became isolated, as communications, already stretched to the limit, could not be extended to include them while they recovered heavy wheeled vehicles from soft sand and breakdowns along a cross-country route through the Iraqi desert.

"Over a period of 60 - 70 hours with little rest and limited communications, human error further contributed to the situation through a single navigation error that placed these troops in the presence of an adaptive enemy who used asymmetric tactics to exploit the soldier's willingness to adhere to the Law of War."

But the details in the 15-page report vividly convey the frustration of the battle, one of the biggest disasters of an otherwise brilliant campaign.

To begin with, the unit was basically on the wrong road, because the commander relied on a commercial Global Positioning System (GPS) and a printed map instead of a CD-ROM issued to his unit. His map omitted a detour that would have taken the 507th to the west of the heavily populated area.

The unit was bogged down on the way, repairing broken-down trucks and pulling heavy equipment out of sand and by the time it reached the intersection for the detour on the evening of March 22, the traffic control officers had left. Instead of turning west, the convoy headed north on Highway 8, toward an-Nasiriyah. The 33 soldiers in the convoy had been driving for more than 42 hours since the start of the war. With only a few hours of sleep, they were in their second consecutive night of movement.

At 5:30 on March 23, the unit saw lights ahead, and made the second wrong turn. Highway 8 turned left at an intersection and still would have skirted the city. But the commander thought the lights were an oil refinery and headed north on Route 7/8, which crossed the Euphrates into the outskirts of an-Nasiriyah.

It is a city of four-to-five-story buildings with narrow streets and alleyways flanked by the river to the south and canals to the north. Its roadsides along the route taken by the 507th are partially drained marshlands of soft sand and mud. The heavy trucks in the convoy, which had two disabled vehicles in tow, had a fatal lack of room to maneuver.

At first, though, according to the report, the convoy met no resistance. It passed armed Iraqi checkpoints entering and leaving the town, and the Iraqi soldiers waved at them. A bit after 6 a.m., north of town, the highway ended in a "T" intersection, and the convoy leaders realized they were lost. They stopped, set up security while turning the trucks around and issued the order to "lock and load" weapons. They headed back the way they came.

It was now 7 a.m., and the convoy started to take small-arms fire. The trucks sped up, following ambush procedures, but spaces opened in the convoy. "In the speed and confusion," said the report, the column leaders missed the turn heading south.

The entire convoy had to turn around again, but the road was too narrow and vehicles started to break down. The remaining trucks had to drive almost three kilometers past the intersection to find an area wide enough for a u-turn. As the firing continued, the last vehicle in the convoy was a Humvee with a trailer driven by Piestewa.

The group leader, 1st Sgt. Robert Dowdy, sat in the front with Piestewa. Jessica Lynch was in the back. As the Humvee headed back, it passed a 10-ton wrecker stuck in soft sand. The wrecker was towing the five-ton supply truck that Lynch had started out driving. As Piestewa drove by, she conducted a moving "combat pick-up of the wrecker's crew, Pfc. Edward Anguiano and Sgt. George Buggs, from the 3rd Forward Support Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Buggs and Anguiano piled into the back seat and began returning fire from the rear of the Humvee as it sped south.

The convoy by this time had separated into three groups. Piestewa's Humvee was in the rear with four five-ton trucks or tractor-trailers and a wrecker towing another five-ton tractor-trailer. At 7:20, a tractor-trailer in the lead took heavy fire just as an Iraqi truck blocked the road. The driver lost control and veered off the road to the right.

Piestewa sped up from behind. Sgt. Dowdy ordered the wrecker to keep moving, but then the Humvee took a hit, whether by direct or indirect fire. According to the report, it "crashed at a high rate of speed into the rear of the stopped tractor-trailer."

Dowdy died on impact. Piestewa and Lynch were seriously injured and captured, and, Iraqi doctors later told the Washington Post, arrived at Nasiriyah hospital three hours later. Piestewa died shortly afterward, of causes that remained to be spelled out.

The Army appears to have serious concerns about the fate of Buggs and Anguiano. The report states that the circumstances of their deaths "remain under investigation."

The report concludes, "it is clear that the soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company, including two soldiers from the 3rd FSB, were attacked for a sustained period of time. Fatigue, stress, the asymmetric nature of the threat, and the environment contributed to the events leading up to and during this attack. Every soldier performed honorably and each did his or her duty."