SPC Lori Ann Piestewa
SPC Piestewa has unenviable distinction of being the first female soldier to die in combat in the Iraq war and the first Indigenous American woman to die in combat on foreign soil in the service of the US Army.
During the time of the events that would lead up to her death Lori Ann Piestewa was an E-3/Private First Class (PFC) but was posthumously promoted to E-4/Specialist (SPC).
Lori Ann Piestewa was born December 14, 1979, Tuba City, Arizona and was a member of the Hopi Native American tribe.
The Hopi are a tribe who primarily live on the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona. As of the 2010 census, there were 19,338 Hopi in the United States. Traditionally, Hopi are organized into matrilineal clans. Names, traditions, and water and land rights are passed through the maternal lines.
Generally speaking, the Hopi have tried to employ the concept of non-confrontation and nonviolence.” In precolonial times, that meant avoiding war with neighboring tribes. Although there were occasional skirmishes with the Navajo and Utes, extended conflicts never took place.
When American forces expanded west in the 19th century, the Hopi again found a way to maintain peace. Unlike tribes such as the Cherokee or the Lakota—whose land sat on gold and oil, respectively—Hopis inhabited a stretch of Arizona’s arid northeast that had little face value to the federal government. As such, no attempt was made to seize it. As a result, the Hopi are one of very few American Indigenous peoples whose reservation sits on their ancestral homelands.
The Piestewa family had a long military tradition; her paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Army in the European Theatre of World War II; and her father, Terry Piestewa, was drafted in the U.S. Army in September 1965 and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War.
As a child, Lori was given the Hopi name Köcha-Hon-Mana (also spelled Qotsa-hon-mana, meaning White Bear Girl). Her surname, Piestewa, is derived from a Hopi language root meaning “water pooled on the desert by a hard rain”; thus, Piestewa translates loosely as “the people who live by the water.”
Lori Ann was an energetic student and tough competitor. She pitched and played second base on the Tuba City High School softball team. She was also active in ROTC.
In 1997, she married her high school sweetheart, Bill Whiterock, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, and moved with him to the center of the universe, Fort Bragg, North Carolina where Bill served in the U.S. Army. They had two children, Brandon, born in 1998, and Carla, born in 1999. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last, so Lori set her sights on her own military career.
Lori joined the U.S. Army in October 2001 at the age of 21, as a way to support her two children and to help achieve her dreams of going to college. Her children were left in the care of her parents in Arizona.
She trained to be a 92A, or an Automated Logistical Specialist. 92As supervise and perform warehouse functions and maintain equipment records, parts, and inventories.
After training she was assigned to the 507th Maintenance Company, 5th Battalion, 52nd Air Defense Artillery at Ft. Bliss, TX.
While at Ft. Bliss SPC Piestewa, known as “Pi” to her fellow soldiers, became roommates with Private Jessica Lynch. Lynch recalls that “When I first got there, everybody warned me. They said, ‘Oh no, you got Lori.’” Lynch recalls. “Everyone told me she was very hard-core.” Despite their cultural and personality differences, Lynch and Piestewa became friends. They would remain roommates at Ft. Bliss until their company deployed and were roommates again once they arrived in Iraq.
When her unit was deployed to Iraq SPC Piestewa wasn’t supposed to go with them. She had severely injured her shoulder in a training exercise and was recovering from surgery. Lori was very strong willed, had a strong sense of duty, and wanted to do what she thought was right. She went to her supervisors and convinced them that her shoulder had healed. She was cleared and deployed with her unit in February 2003.
On March 23, Piestewa’s Company was traveling in a convoy through the desert and was meant to bypass Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, during the opening days of the war; but the convoy which had taken a wrong turn into Nasiriyah was ambushed by the enemy and cut into three sections. Piestewa and friend, PVT Jessica Lynch, were in the back of the column amid slow, and some disabled, heavy trucks.
The main convoy of the 507th Army Maintenance Company, with the lighter faster moving vehicles, had left 2 hours before. The Supply Company was now at 1/2 strength, deep in hostile territory, and without the protection of the forward battalion.
At some point, Lynch’s five-ton truck, hauling a “water buffalo”, or a trailer filled with 400 gallons of water, broke down. Piestewa pulled up and said, “Get in, roommate.”
The ensuing attack proved to be the Army’s bloodiest day of the ground war in Iraq.
Without warning they quickly found themselves surrounded & an easy target. Piestewa’s Humvee was going at least 45 mph and weaving to escape gunfire. She had just turned to go around a disabled trailer when a RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade, hit her left-front wheel well causing the Humvee to crash into the disabled trailer, killing three passengers and leaving Piestewa with severe head wounds. Piestewa and Lynch were then taken prisoner.
United States Special Forces later rescued Lynch from the hospital, but Piestewa was not found. It was then that she was declared Missing In Action.
The Special forces later discovered a mass shallow grave behind the hospital. One of the bodies that was later positively identified was SPC Lori Ann Piestewa. She had apparently survived the crash, but died at the hospital a short time later. It is unclear when, how, or why she died.
SPC Piestewa was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal and promoted from Private First Class to Specialist.
A Pentagon official publicly confirmed that Piestewa, in fact, fought back courageously as her unit was ambushed on March 23.
There are a lot of conflicting accounts of what happened and whether SPC Piestewa ever drew her weapon or fought back, but the official Pentagon stance is that she drew her weapon and fought and did it with courage and honor.
After her remains were recovered, SPC Piestewa was returned home and now rests on the Hopi reservation near Tuba City
Within weeks after her death, a grassroots movement among the Indigenous communities from tribal nations across North America was started to change the name of Arizona’s “Squaw Peak” to “Piestewa Peak.” The tremendous outpouring of native support for the name change prompted then-governor Janet Napolitano to push the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names to abandon the usual five-year waiting period and make the change immediately. It was a controversial move, but the U.S. Board on Geographic Names finally sanctioned the change April 10, 2008. This was a huge victory for indigenous people and a tremendous honor for SPC Piestewa.
White Sands Missile Range honored Piestewa by dedicating a memorial bur oak in her honor. The tree stands in front of building 128, the post’s barracks for enlisted Soldiers.
Piestewa has been memorialized at the Mount Soledad Veteran’s Memorial in California; and at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was also featured in an exhibit at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2003, the National Indian Gaming Association received over $85,000 in pledges for the Lori Piestewa Memorial Fund, a fund to benefit her children.
In 2003, Grand Canyon State Games announced its inaugural Lori Piestewa National Native American Games, stating, “Lori’s passion for sports will be emblematic of the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment the participants will put forth in this competition.” According to the Arizona Sports Council, the Games are affiliated with 47 other state games throughout the United States, and are sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee through the National Congress of State Games. In 2010, over 30,000 Arizonans participated, making it the largest Native American athletic gathering in the nation.
More recently, on Saturday, June 6, 2020, the Unified Arizona Veterans (UAV) presented the inaugural “Army Specialist Lori Ann Piestewa Veteran Family Scholarship.” The scholarships – designated for the children of servicemen and women who were killed in action – were presented to Specialist Pietstewa’s two children.
The UAV was formed in 1981 by the American Legion, DAV and VFW to provide support for Arizona’s veterans and their families. In 2016 the UAV awarded their first college scholarships to Arizona’s veterans. This year marks the first time the UAV has expanded its scholarship program to include the children of veterans killed in action, and chose to name the scholarship in honor of Specialist Piestewa’s sacrifice.
Brandon Whiterock is the eldest child of Lori Piestewa and is a student at Coconino Community College. He is enrolled in a transition program leading to a bachelor’s degree at Northern Arizona University.
Carla Piestewa is a student at Grand Canyon University and is enrolled as a biology major with an emphasis in pre-medicine.
That is the story of SPC Lori Ann Piestewa, the first Indigenous American woman to die in combat on foreign soil.
Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum
Born October 31st 1954 in Dayton, Ohio. She grew up in upstate NY, outside of buffalo with her parents, and siblings she was the oldest of four children. Growing up she always wanted to be a veterinarian or a scientist. She loved animals and science. She graduated high school with honors at the end of her junior year, at the age of 16 in 1971. She loved spending the summers at her grandparent’s farm in Ohio. Her Grandfather never shared his military experiences with her until after she joined, but she admired him and the way he was. He taught her how to shoot and inspired her to have a good view of military service. She grew up in a time when there was a lot going on, the cold war, Vietnam, however, she said none of that really reached her, she was pretty sheltered and focused on her own thing.
She went to community college and then transferred to Cornell to earn her bachelor’s degree. She worked hard to become financially independent, that was important to her. She stayed at Cornell for graduate school and loved research and biochemistry. She received her PHD in nutrition and biochemistry. She was recruited by the military after a conference she attended in her second year of graduate school. She was commissioned as a 1st LT and was promoted to a CPT 6 months after she joined. During her college life she married her husband and they had a daughter. They were living of the land type of people and loved it. They had a log cabin and raised animals and chopped wood for winter. I love this image. I would love to live out in the woods on my own with chickens and homemade wine.
After graduating from the Basic Officers Course she moved her family from NY to CA. Her and her husband divorced shortly after the move. He wanted to keep the back to the land lifestyle and
She worked in an experimental surgery lab in San Francisco when she joined the Army. The lab was full of people like her who were more civilian than military and every year she attended a military school to keep her in the right mindset. She received the Expert Field Medical Badge and graduated Airborne school. Which were odd experiences for her when you think about it. She was a CPT, a senior CPT at that, but had very little “real Army” experience. Her Airborne experience was fun to read about. She was made the PLT Leader and her platoon was about 200 people. She had no idea what to do. Fresh out of the lab when they never did Drill and Ceremony. The class leader took her under his wing and helped her in the parking lot get a crash course in what she would need to survive. She also learned the valuable trick of handing the formation over to the NCOs.
She worked in Presidio for four years and she knew that she needed to leave the lab in order to pursue a successful career. She saw those around her were making more money than her doing the same job, however she didn’t have an MD. Due to the discrimination against women in the flight side of the military, she chose Medical school. This was the start of her life in medical service corps.
She attended medical school in the military in Bethesda Maryland, from 1982 to 1986. She chose urology for her clinical specialty. She met and married her husband Kory in their first year of med school. He was and Air Force officer. In order for them to stay together they decided to become flight surgeons together in 1987.
She found herself at FT Rucker AL for four years. Rhonda made Major and became the chief at a primary care clinic because of her seniority. She picked it up quickly and met that challenge successfully. She worked in a few different positions while she was there up until she got the call to deploy with the 2-229 Attack Helicopter BN in support of Operation Desert Shield and then Desert Storm. August 25 1990 she was greeted with the blast of hot fiery air the middle east likes to serve midday. The BN stayed in a parking garage Saudi Arabia until they pushed forward onto the desert. During this time, Rhonda was a major.
Her husband Kory also ended up deployed to Saudi around the same time. They were fortunate enough to be able to see each other a few times while they were there as well.
She worked as the flight surgeon and was often flying. As the flight surgeon she was the doctor for the pilots and in the event of a downed pilot she would need to be there to provide medical aid.
They got the call of a downed F16 pilot, in their formation thy had two Apaches and the black hawk. On the black hawk there was a crew of eight that headed out on this search and rescue mission. The 27th of February, which was the third day of the ground war and they ended up in the thick of the enemy. The Black Hawk was shot down and Rhonda says it happened so fast. They felt the small arms fire, and then boom it went down fast. There were only three survivors from the crash. It was late afternoon when they went down and when Rhonda woke up it was night. When she first woke up, she thought she was dead. She had no pain and it was silent. She was able to work her way out from under the wreckage of the aircraft.
She survived with two broken arms, a badly damaged right knee, a bullet in her right shoulder and many cuts and bruises as you can imagine. The crash scene was so horrific no one thought anyone could have survived it. Rhonda and two other crew members were all taken as POWs. They are held for 8 days, shuffled around and interrogated until they are taken to the red cross and returned home. She was the second woman POW in the Gulf.
Husband and daughter had to each deal with the fallout of her becoming missing in Action.
Rhonda’s time as a POW sparked a large debate about women in combat as you can imagine. But her mindset has always been that the best qualified person should get the job, regardless of race or gender. Rhonda was frustrated that there was more focus put on women than men. The abuse she received was no different than what many men have had to endure. Women were not the only gender who could be molested and I think that this focus did upset her. She argued that the men suffered greatly as POWs. Beaten, electrocuted, threatened and worse.
She believed her traits of independence and toughness helped her to cope with her time in captivity. She had in her mind that she was going to make it through this. She was certain that she would be recused and never faltered from that.
We will have links to Rhonda’s interviews and her book. I highly encourage everyone to read it. It is such an amazing story of perseverance. She was completely helpless, broken arms, behind enemy lines and in each situation, she never gave up. Her thoughts and perception of this experience is powerful. I think its something everyone could appreciate and take something from.
He time as a POW is what made her famous, but she went on to have a great career after this event as well.
She was promoted to COL in 2001, attended War college, and from 2003 to 2005 she served as the first female commander of Landstuhl hospital in Germany. She was also the Command surgeon for Forscom. In 2012 she retired as a brigadier general after 33 years of military service.
I read an interview that Rhonda did after she retired in 2012 and I was amused by one part of it. She spoke about how now women are following in the footsteps of those who came before, They weren’t necessarily being the first woman at something. But she is right, more people are recognizing that women are capable to do many things. Speaking about soldiers she said that
“They’ve realized there’s some great female commanders, there’s some crummy ones and it has nothing to do with whether they’re female. There’s great male commanders, and there’s some crummy ones and I think people don’t spend very much time thinking about it.” Rhonda Cornum
Her thoughts on men and women service members really stood out to me. I think there are so many of us who feel this way as well.
Looking at the number of Soldiers killed in war shows that war is a dangerous occupation. The thought that the women killed are somehow more important than the men killed is wrong. Yes they are, each one of them are a daughter, a girlfriend, a wife, or a mother. What we also know all too well and what Rhonda highlights as well is that every man that was killed was a son, a husband, a boyfriend, or a dad.
Second photo credit: Rhonda Scott Cornum Collection (AFC/2001/001/19247), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.19247