she met an ambush and an
early death outside the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. Each year,
dozens of young men and women just like Piestewa leave the Hopi
and Navajo reservations, which converge in Tuba City, all
searching for something they can't find at home.
hope to further their education, knowing they might not be able
to put it to use if they return to their reservations where job
shortages and unemployment are endemic. Others chase the dollars
into the cities, hunting the array of jobs that eludes them on
many are drawn back home by the forbidding but beautiful
landscapes of the high desert and by the intangible lure of a
more traditional and tranquil lifestyle on the reservation. To
them, America's big cities are too frenetic. The washout rate
among college-bound kids is 80 percent, said Bobby Robbins, a
Navajo employment counselor. The reason: trouble adjusting to
the hectic and impersonal life they find there.
that backdrop, an inordinate number of young Native Americans
make the military their destination, if only short-term, because
it offers instant money, free on-the-job training, decent
benefits, a structured and patriotic environment and a line on
the resume that says "veteran." It gives them a leg up
if they decide to compete for prized government jobs back home
on "the rez."
ebb and flow of people is a generations-old pattern.
others who are left behind want to get off the rez because they
see the successful ones going off the rez," explained Lola
Riggs of Tuba City, a college graduate and mother of three.
was determined not to be left behind. In her zeal to get ahead,
this ordinary young woman was transformed by war into an
December 1980 to a Hopi father, Terry Piestewa, and a Hispanic
mother, Priscilla "Percy" Baca Piestewa, Lori Ann was
the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls. She spent
part of her childhood in Winslow but grew up mostly in Tuba
City. Though taught from an early age about her Hopi background
- the family name literally means "pool of still
water" - she was raised on the Navajo side of U.S. 160 in
the town, which marks the boundary between the Navajo and Hopi
parents have lived for years in a small white home on Tuba City
Unified School District property. Terry is a district
maintenance man. Percy is a momlike figure to hundreds who've
come through Tuba City's schools. First a dorm aide at the
Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school and later an
administrative assistant at the local middle school, Percy took
everyone under her wing, from students to new residents.
details of Piestewa's childhood are sketchy. Her family and
closest friends have avoided talking about her past. Some say
it's because Hopi custom discourages talk of the dead. Others
say her family simply isn't prepared to tackle such a painful
subject. Nonetheless, a picture of a happy and stable childhood
emerges from others who knew her.
remembered her as a "daddy's girl," playing Little
League baseball with her team, the Indians, when she was 7 or 8.
By eighth grade, she was making an impression as a determined
volleyball player despite being shorter than 5 feet.
good enough to stand out, recalled teammate Vachel Kewenvoyouma,
25, of Prescott. Everyone called her "Little Lori,"
and she never missed practice.
never gave up, always tried harder," Kewenvoyouma said.
"No matter how down we were in scores, she tried
City High School, Piestewa was pitcher and second baseman on the
softball team where her steely determination again was on
is, there isn't much else for energetic kids to do in Tuba City
but play sports. Outdoor basketball courts dot the landscape.
The 5,000-seat Warrior Pavilion was built at Tuba City High to
meet basketball's huge popularity.
popular diversion is running, and there's plenty of vast open
spaces for it. Otherwise, kids mainly wander the dusty streets
of Tuba City on skateboards or bikes, listening to hip-hop and
punk music. Sometimes, they congregate at the nearby Castle
Rock, a commanding formation of twisted red rock spires rising
from the desert floor outside town.
while, there was a theater in town, but it closed a year ago,
leaving a small video store as the key outlet for popular
entertainment. There's a Bashas' on the highway but nothing
resembling a mall. Kids often drive 75 miles to Flagstaff on
weekends to stroll Flagstaff Mall or Wal-Mart. Parks and
recreation centers are a distant dream.
that can afford it have computers, but 44 percent of Tuba City
families with kids live in poverty, so it's a luxury most can't
do they go?" asked Javier Brown, a teacher and counselor
for more than 20 years in Tuba City schools. "It's been
brought up with the tribe: What do we have for these kids?"
consequences of boredom are a high juvenile crime rate and
notable alcohol and substance abuse problems. Partying among
teens is a constant public health threat, but as 16-year-old
Tuba City High freshman Kile Alix said, "There's nothing
else to do."
immersed herself in sports and her school's Junior ROTC program
while doing reasonably well in academics. Acquaintances say it
was ROTC that got Piestewa thinking seriously about the
military. Harry Riggs III, 17, of Tuba City, said ROTC means
more than just strenuous physical exercise and disciplined
really a leadership program," said the Tuba City High
junior, himself an ROTC cadet. "Kids come in shy and
passive. . . . When they come out, they're not shy; they're
than 60 students are enrolled, roughly half of them women.
Although Riggs concedes that "ROTC is not the cool thing to
do," he says it protects teens who are struggling to fill
their time productively.
Venishaah Isaac of Tuba City. At 17, Isaac has a 2-year-old son
and is pregnant. She dropped out of school and is trying to get
her general equivalency diploma. Her boyfriend, Merle Lee, 20,
was kicked out of school two months short of graduation and has
supported himself off and on by playing in a local rock band.
and Lee know they've made mistakes. They're hoping to correct
them. They've started going to a local Christian church; they're
marrying in June; and their baby is due in October. They're
still looking for a place to live.
lot of kids leave here because they want a taste of a different
life," Isaac said. "I've wanted my whole life to leave
was not immune to similar pitfalls. In her senior year, she
had met Bill H. Whiterock, a Navajo and three-sport athlete at
Tuba City High her sophomore year. He was a Warrior wrestler and
she the team's manager. He was a year older.
were truly in love, said Whiterock's brother, Donnie, 22.
hung out at the local McDonald's and a restaurant nearby called
Kate's Cafe. Every morning, they'd go to the school weight room
to work out together. After school, they cruised the main street
in a rickety maroon and silver GMC pickup, or drove to Flagstaff
for a movie. One prom night, they drove to Flagstaff for Chinese
graduated in May 1997 and enlisted in the Army. Shortly before
he was to reported for basic training in October 1997, Piestewa
became pregnant. On Oct.24, the couple were married by a
Flagstaff justice of the peace.
Whiterock, Bill's mother, was surprised by the nuptials, finding
out the night before when she joined the Piestewas for dinner.
The Whiterocks bought a wedding ring the next day at Flagstaff
Mall. Within days, Piestewa tearfully sent Whiterock off to
basic training at Fort Sill, Okla.
had moved in with the Whiterocks before her marriage and
considered herself family, cooking Mexican food for all and
making plans for her baby. She always dressed sharply, Rena
said, often wearing her ROTC uniform. Taking advanced courses,
she completed her 20 credit-hours in the fall of 1997, allowing
her to graduate from high school in December of that year.
to North Carolina
February 1998, Whiterock finished basic training. His family and
Piestewa went to Oklahoma for the ceremony, after which Piestewa
and Whiterock moved to Fort Bragg, N.C. where he was assigned to
an artillery unit. They lived in a trailer. The couple's son,
Brandon Terry, was born in May 1998.
time in North Carolina is something of a mystery. What is clear
is that marital problems developed. Whiterock's parents say
Piestewa told her husband she, too, wanted to join the service,
but Whiterock objected. Instead, Piestewa had another child,
Carla Lynn, in 1999. She brought both children home briefly to
be baptized at St. Jude's Catholic Church in Tuba City.
Whiterock's parents say they weren't aware of any problems at
never said anything to me about the military," Rena
Whiterock said. Piestewa did mention wanting to go to college.
October 2000, Whiterock was sick of the service. He mustered
out, and they moved home. Only now, Whiterock moved in with his
parents and she with hers. Whiterock's parents aren't sure why
the marriage began to disintegrate.
took care of my son when they were in North Carolina," Rena
said. "I appreciate that."
the subject of divorce came up. Whiterock's parents say their
son still loved his wife, and he balked. They both started
dating others. Whiterock got a job as a welder, and like a lot
of Navajo men, followed his job out of state to California. It
was then that Piestewa began to look seriously at her own
military option. As the former commander of her high school ROTC
corps, it had never been far from her mind.
still took her little ones to see her in-laws regularly, and
they stayed on good terms. During one visit, Piestewa told her
estranged husband's younger brother that she was ready to join
the Army. Father Godden Menard of St. Jude's Catholic Church
said she also spoke of wanting to travel.
meant she had to leave her children. Though leaving kids behind
is not a terribly unusual event on the reservation, where
children frequently are raised by grandparents or extended
family, Piestewa's grandfather, Manuel Baca, said it was a tough
decision for his granddaughter.
March 30, 2001, Piestewa reported for basic training at Fort
Sill, just as Whiterock had. She then went to Advanced
Individual Training at Fort Lee, Va., before accepting her first
duty assignment with the 507th Maintenance Company, a unit
assigned to the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade at Fort
unit, whose motto is "Just Fix It," is packed with
mechanics and technicians trained to repair trucks and heavy
equipment, including the unit's missile systems. Piestewa's job:
keeping track via computer of supplies used by the 150-person
at Fort Bliss that she met Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who would become
her fast friend and roommate in roughly February 2002, said
Lynch's brother, Gregory Lynch of Palestine, W.V.
talked about her all the time," Gregory said, adding that
they would go to malls and movies together in their spare time.
February, her divorce from Whiterock became final. Shortly
before she was deployed to Iraq in March, she called Whiterock
in Tuba City. He wasn't home, but Rena spoke to her.
said, 'Finally, we're going to leave.' I just told her to take
care of herself," Rena said.
gave a local TV interview before shipping out, saying
prophetically, "It's very important knowing that my family
is well taken care of."
March 23, as the 507th was in a convoy headed north through the
Iraqi desert, one of its vehicles broke down. Part of the unit
stopped for quick repairs, then continued north. Although
Pentagon officials are still investigating precisely what
happened, this much is known: The convoy made a wrong turn and
drove into the outskirts of Nasiriyah, where Iraqi troops lay in
ambush. A brutal firefight took place.
least 15 soldiers from the unit were known to be missing,
including Piestewa and Lynch. All of Tuba City held vigil along
with the Piestewa clan. Yellow ribbons hung from trees, cars,
bushes and signposts. Piestewa's best friend, Trinity Honahni,
put a yellow ribbon at each post in her family's fence, hoping
for the best. Prayer services and Native American ceremonies
days later, Lynch was rescued, buoying everyone's hopes for
April 4, the heavy news arrived that Piestewa's body was one of
those found in a shallow grave near the hospital where Lynch had
unclear whether she died in the firefight or was killed later.
Rena Whiterock went to the Piestewa home. Percy, Lori's mother,
held her hand tightly and said, "My daughter is safe now.
Nobody is going to hurt her anymore."
ex-husband found out the hard way: from a news broadcast the
next day in Page, where he works at the Salt River Project power
I'm alone, when I'm driving down the road at the crack of dawn,
when I see flags wave, when I see yellow ribbons, I think about
Lori," said Bill's father, Henry Whiterock. "My son
is too young to know what happened. But 4-year-old Brandon has
figured out that his mother won't be back.
a recent memorial honoring Piestewa, Brandon told his father and
grandmother, "My mom is an angel. I'll never see her again.
She's an angel watching over you."
Flannery at (602) 444-8629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Reid at (602) 444-8049 or email@example.com.
as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine
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