On War’s Receiving End

Los Angeles Times
March 23, 2007
By Alex Tizon

FLAGSTAFF, ArizonaFour years later, the grieving parents are doing OK. Better than OK. They cruise through most days upbeat — determinedly grateful for all the good things given them since the worst day of their lives. They’ve received a pat on the back from the president. They’ve been given, free and clear, a new home on 5 1/2 acres, a mini-palace of stone and clay, which they’ve filled with gifts of paintings and statues and prayer quilts and hand-woven rugs. A veritable museum of tributes.

But every so often, amid the blessings, a memory sneaks up, and Terry and Percy Piestewa find themselves weeping as in those first days after learning their daughter Lori — their youngest — had been killed, one of the first American deaths of the Iraq war. In those moments the gifts count for nothing. “We’d give it all back in a split-second,” Terry says, his eyes glassy.

This is life four years after the fact: as surreal as ever, alternating between nightmare and fantasy, a constant remembering that things will never be as they once were. The years have passed like days, Terry says, and sometimes it seems like only yesterday when they heard the fateful knock on the door.

Lori Piestewa (pie-YES-tuh-wah) was 23, a private first class in the 507th Army Maintenance Company, when the Humvee she was driving was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on March 23, 2003, the fourth day of the war. She was captured and soon after died of her injuries. Lori, a 5-foot ball of verve known by fellow soldiers as “Pi,” was the first American woman killed in the war. A member of the Hopi tribe, she’s best known for her supporting role in the saga of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, who rode in the same Humvee. Lynch survived, and her rescue was later dramatized in a book and movie.

Lori’s body was flown home and buried in an unmarked grave (in Hopi culture, the dead are buried in secret). The gravesite was covered by a mound of flagstone in a desolate corner of the Hopi reservation just outside Tuba City, 75 miles north of here and just a few minutes from the trailer park where she grew up. A single mother, Lori left behind two young children, Brandon and Carla, now in the care of her parents. The family drives to Lori’s grave every month or so, clears the weeds and replaces the U.S. flag planted nearby. The desert wind tears the cloth to pieces.

On a recent sunny day, Terry rattles around the house, waiting for Percy to come home with “the babies.” Terry, 63, is short and stout and is full-blooded Hopi. His easy smile seems incongruous to his bloodshot eyes, which reflect hard living and bad health; he lives with diabetes, a stuttering heart and blood pressure as high as the home’s 12-foot ceilings.

The couple, retired after more than three decades working for the same reservation school district — she as an administrative assistant, he as a bus driver and maintenance man — have arranged their lives around their new wards. They raised four of their own children and find themselves, in the last third of their lives, unexpectedly raising Lori’s. The children’s father, an itinerant welder, appears occasionally; he remarried and started a new family.

The kids come tumbling through the front door. Brandon, 8, rolls in like a boulder, 165 pounds and size 10 feet. Carla, 7, flits in like a spark, 38 pounds and zipping from here to there, chattering as fast as she runs.

“Meet the Gentle Giant and Thumbelina!” says Percy, 59, ambling behind them. She is dressed in black with a yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbon pinned to her blouse. She radiates good cheer. Later she confides it’s because of her nature and because she must. She and her husband don’t have the luxury to be bitter.

“We need to take care of the babies,” Percy says. “The babies need us.”

THE house. They must tell you about the house because more than anything it represents how strange the dream has been and how different life has become. Because the house, as they see it, is a gift from Lori.

“It was Lori’s vision for us,” says Percy, who with Terry has settled around the marble-topped island in the kitchen. Percy sips tea, Terry coffee. The couple have been together for 44 years. Photographs lie scattered on the counter. Nearby, at the dining table, Brandon does homework, listening in on the conversation and occasionally glancing in the direction of the photographs. Carla is in the family room practicing “Down in the Valley” on the piano.

Monday is piano and gymnastics for Carla, taekwondo for Brandon. For much of each day, Terry and Percy act as tag-team chauffeurs, at the moment catching a breath between car rides. They gaze at a picture of Lori and Lynch, standing side by side at Ft. Bliss, Texas, where the two were roommates before they were deployed to Iraq. “Pi and Lynch,” they were called. “Lynch and Pi.” Two peas. Inseparable.

They confided fantasies of what they wanted to do after the military. Lori said she wanted to build a big house on the Hopi reservation where she and her parents would raise the children. That’s all, just a real house. Lori had never lived in a real house.

Lynch remembered her friend’s words. A few years later, as her celebrity peaked, Lynch contacted the reality television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” in which a cast and crew of hundreds build a home in a single week for — according to the show’s website — “one deserving family.” In a videotaped plea Lynch made the case for the Piestewas, summarizing the family’s situation:

Terry and Percy were devoted, upstanding, hardworking people born and fated to live on a dirt-poor reservation where they raised their children in a double-wide trailer. The retired couple had only their school pensions to support themselves and, now, Lori’s two children.

The show bit. In the spring of 2005, the Piestewas moved into a 4,000-square-foot solar- and wind-powered adobe castle on the outskirts of Flagstaff in what used to be ranch country. Behind their house loom the snowcapped San Francisco Peaks.

“I think of Lori every day,” Lynch says from West Virginia. Lynch named her newborn daughter Dakota Ann after Lori: “Dakota” is a Native American word for “ally,” and Ann was Lori’s middle name. “Lori and I counted on each other to take care of the other’s family in case anything happened. Keeping that promise to her is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.”

With the added space, the Piestewa family quickly grew. In honor of Lori, a lover of animals, the family keeps one horse, six dogs, three turtles, two cats and a rooster named Louie. Only one dog and the turtles get to live inside.

The home was just the last in a series of tributes to Lori, which has included the naming of a peak and a parkway (in Phoenix) after her. The show gave the family money to pay bills and property taxes for several years. After that, they’ll be on their own again, Terry says, smiling, “living paycheck to paycheck.”

“None of it is ours anyway,” Percy says, gesturing at her surroundings. “We’re just caretakers. The house, everything — it’s for the babies.”

ONE of the babies, the Gentle Giant, lumbers to the counter and starts picking through the photographs. “I remember that,” Brandon says, looking at an image of himself at 4 with his mother in uniform next to him. It was at Ft. Bliss, one of their last visits together. His voice is small.

Later, in another room, Terry and Percy talk about how the children are coping with their mother gone. Brandon has struggled more, they say. He holds everything in. At school, teachers became concerned about his extreme shyness. A psychiatrist met with him a few times and came back with a concise diagnosis: “He wants his mom.”

Carla, the exuberant one, found a way to deal with the loss: She simply continues to speak to her mom as if she hovered just above her shoulder. Sometimes Terry and Percy think the little girl is talking to them but find out she’s talking to her mom about the project she finished at school or about a friend she made on the playground. When the front door opens and no one is there, Carla says, “It’s just Mom checking on us.” When a framed picture tilts or a pillow falls: “Mom again.”

Percy says the little girl reminds her of Lori. She has the same sunny disposition, the same energetic and imaginative way of dealing with challenging situations. She doesn’t mope; she runs. She draws pictures or rolls her fingers along a keyboard.

Forty-five minutes later, Carla is still practicing “Down in the Valley.” Her legs dangle above the floor, and her head juts forward inches from the sheet music. Percy checks in on her. From the doorway it appears Carla is also reading the lyrics:

Roses love sunshine, violets love dew

Angels in heaven know I love you

Know I love you, dear, know I love you

Angels in heaven, know I love you.

Carla is playing an old spinet piano, sent to the Piestewas by a woman in Ohio. A few feet away, in a corner, a large picture of Lori sits on a table, lighted by two flickering votive candles. Percy keeps at least one candle lighted every day. Images of Lori — sketched, painted, photographed, sculpted and computerized — adorn every room in the house and almost every hallway.

Coffee break’s over.

“Get your bag, baby,” Terry tells Brandon. The boy scrambles to his room and returns with a duffel stuffed with taekwondo gear.

“It’s time, sweetie,” Percy tells Carla, who hops off the piano bench and sprints to her room to change into a warm-up suit.

The household suddenly fills with noise. The sound of pattering feet. Car keys jingling and bags rustling and Jazzy the dog skittering and barking. The front door opens, and the kids blaze through to sunshine, Terry and Percy following behind, the grieving parents, creaky and slow but full of purpose. One of them, ever so faintly, is humming Carla’s piano song.