But why has Piestewa
captured the world's imagination and become a focal point for
national grieving over all lost soldiers?
She's believed to be
the first Native American woman killed in combat in a foreign
She was a single mother
with two small children, a boy, 4, and a girl, 3.
She has become a symbol
of the danger for all women in the combat zone.
She came from the same
environs that produced the famed Navajo Code Talkers of World
War II, who have enjoyed a recent renaissance in the public
spotlight because of last year's movie Windtalkers.
And, with the number of
U.S. war dead in Iraq at just over 100, the media focus on the
victims has been concentrated and intense, especially on those
with unusual backgrounds like that of Piestewa.
"People want to
have some way to respond to all of this tragedy. And Lori, being
a single mother, a Native American -- in spite of everything she
had to lose -- went off and did everything she could do,"
said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., whose district includes the
Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona.
stands out as a little bit different, she gives us all someone
with which to try to personify the losses we feel."
"The thing that
strikes me about this is where there are massive amounts of
casualties, it is very difficult to make that real. So, there's
a tendency to pick one individual to focus on," said Linda
Grant De Pauw, president of the Maryland-based Minerva Center, a
non-profit educational foundation supporting the study of
military women and women in war.
"Her story brings
a number of things together: the Native American element, a
woman in war, being a mother, and the current military action.
All of those are brought into focus in an emotional way,"
De Pauw said.
Speed of information
To some degree, the
nation's collective grieving over Piestewa is a product of the
speed and reach of modern media, eager to dispense the news that
she was the first woman known killed in the Iraqi war and
possibly the nation's first Native American woman ever killed in
"There's a sense
of uniqueness around her and her death, and this is a way to
honor that status," said Gary Laderman, a professor of
religion at Emory University in Atlanta and author of the new
book, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral
Home in 20th Century America.
"Her story has
both cultural and religious overtones. She's a Hopi, and the
first woman of her kind, to die in combat. She's a
Eric Ehst, spokesman
for the Phoenix/Scottsdale chapter of the National Organization
for Women, said: "This is a woman who died for her country
doing what she was supposed to be doing. She wasn't some
innocent bystander. ...She was young, a single mother and
Piestewa's story also
enhances the status of all Native Americans, said Leo Chischilly,
director of the Navajo office of Veterans Affairs.
"The Code Talkers
alerted this country to the contributions of Native Americans in
war," Chischilly said. "And even though we are all
very sad about the death of Lori Piestewa, her death gives us a
great deal of pride about ourselves."
has emerged although her actual battlefield exploits remain
largely unknown and certainly not extensive.
She and other members
of the Army's 507th Maintenance Unit were ambushed in the first
week of the war.
De Pauw said none
of that matters.
"We want to think
of real heroes. But real life just doesn't always present
them," De Pauw said.
years, men who have been taken prisoners of war have been called
heroes. You don't necessarily have to take out a machine-gun
nest to be considered a hero."
And, De Pauw said,
because she is dead, Piestewa never can fall short.
Jessica Lynch, Piestewa's roommate who was rescued last week by
special forces) is still alive, she can be flawed and can't be
sanctified," De Pauw said. "Whereas, Piestewa is dead.
She is never again going to say a wrong word."
Emory's Laderman is
inclined to believe interest in Piestewa will be long-lasting.
"It's hard to
say," Laderman said. "But her ethnic-religious status
as a marker of identity likely makes this something that will
not just disappear. I imagine her name on mountains, streets and
other kinds or forms of memorializations that will keep her in
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