Profile: Lori Piestewa

by Pat Flannery and Betty Reid
The Arizona Republic
April 20, 2003

TUBA CITY, ARIZ. The essential thing to understand about Lori Piestewa is that she grew up in a poor, isolated community where dreams often swirl just out of reach like the fine red dust dancing across her homeland.

Under different circumstances, this shy, 23-year-old Army private from Tuba City, the one whose "cute" laugh everyone remembered, might not have had to leave one ancient desert to die in another half a world away.

But hers wasn't a perfect world. She married young and divorced fast. She loved her two kids, cooking chicken enchiladas, playing softball and listening to the Cranberries. She was a church-going Catholic, but she honored her Hopi heritage by attending religious dances at nearby Moenkopi Village. Most of all, she had aspirations.

At a critical point three weeks ago, Piestewa found herself in Iraq with the 507th Maintenance Company because the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the sheer boredom of life in Tuba City left her few other options when it came to feeding her ambitions and her children.

In a sense, it was every young Native American from the hills above the Moenkopi Plateau who stood in Piestewa's boots when 

Jack Kurtz/Arizona Republic
Brandon Terry, Bill H. Whiterock, 
Lori Piestewa, and Carla Lynn in 
a family portrait shortly after Carla 
was born.

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.   

Some 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 tribal lands.

Eventually, 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.

Against 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."

This ebb and flow of people is a generations-old pattern.

"The 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.

Piestewa was determined not to be left behind. In her zeal to get ahead, this ordinary young woman was transformed by war into an international hero.

Youngest in family

Born in 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 reservations.

Piestewa's 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.

Yet 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.

Some 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.

She was good enough to stand out, recalled teammate Vachel Kewenvoyouma, 25, of Prescott. Everyone called her "Little Lori," and she never missed practice.

"She never gave up, always tried harder," Kewenvoyouma said. "No matter how down we were in scores, she tried harder."

At Tuba City High School, Piestewa was pitcher and second baseman on the softball team where her steely determination again was on display.

Truth 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.

Another 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.

For a 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.

Families 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 afford.

"Where 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?"

The 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."

Influence of ROTC

Piestewa 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 drilling.

"It's 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 leaders."

More 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.

Take 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.

Isaac 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.

"A lot of kids leave here because they want a taste of a different life," Isaac said. "I've wanted my whole life to leave here."

Piestewa was not immune to similar pitfalls. In her senior year, she became pregnant.

Piestewa 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.

They were truly in love, said Whiterock's brother, Donnie, 22.

They 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 food.

Whiterock 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.

Rena 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.

Piestewa 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.

Off to North Carolina

In 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.

Their 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 the time.

"She never said anything to me about the military," Rena Whiterock said. Piestewa did mention wanting to go to college.

By 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.

"She took care of my son when they were in North Carolina," Rena said. "I appreciate that."

Nonetheless, 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.

Piestewa 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.

It 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.

On 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 Bliss, Texas.

The 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 detail.

A new friend

It was 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.

"Jessie talked about her all the time," Gregory said, adding that they would go to malls and movies together in their spare time.

In 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.

"She said, 'Finally, we're going to leave.' I just told her to take care of herself," Rena said.

Piestewa gave a local TV interview before shipping out, saying prophetically, "It's very important knowing that my family is well taken care of."

On 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.

At 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 abounded.

Nine days later, Lynch was rescued, buoying everyone's hopes for Piestewa.

But on 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 been found.

It is 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."

Piestewa's 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 plant.

"When 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 loved Lori."

Carla is too young to know what happened. But 4-year-old Brandon has figured out that his mother won't be back.

Before 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."

Reach Flannery at (602) 444-8629 or
Reach Reid at (602) 444-8049 or


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.