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04/29/2013

The day we got the Jessica Lynch story right

It was probably going to be a wild goose chase, we knew, as we set out at the crack of dawn 10 years ago this morning.

But gas in Baghdad was then barely a penny a litre. And the faint whiff of a whopper beckoned four hours south. Nothing burned, nothing gained. 

A cloudless sky was forming as we wheeled away from the Palestine Hotel. Moments later, we were struck by the astonishing sight of one of the kindest souls I've ever met -- American human-rights activist Marla Ruzicka jogging -- jogging! -- all alone on the banks of the Tigris. 

But that was Baghdad, circa late April 2003. Saddam was gone, the Green Zone didn't yet exist. The landlines were toast, wiped out by America's Shock And Awe aerial bombardment, but Iraq's first makeshift cellular network was still just an idea. Our biggest worry was finding enough electricity to keep our laptops and satphones running.

It was the fragile calm between violent storms. Iraqis were numb with the enormity of regime change. There was room for reporters to roam, with a reasonable expectation of safety.

It wouldn't last. Exactly two years later, as a festering insurgency intensfied, Ruzicka died in a tragic bomb blast near the Baghdad airport. But on this morning she could jog with impunity, perhaps the first woman ever to do so, wearing short shorts, on Iraqi soil. She flashed us a knowing smile and thumbs up. 

Still, Uday, our Sunni Arab driver, was nervous, refusing to speed south at anything less than 150 kms/hour. Ameer, our Shiite translator, and British reporter Inigo Gilmore, my safety-in-numbers travel companion, hung on tight as we made the four-hour journey in two and change.

When we got to the hospital in Nasiriya, Inigo and I split up, fanning out to find the Iraqi doctors and nurses who tended to Pte. Jessica Lynch on our own. Get every account, one by one, individually. Then regroup and compare notes in search of telltale inconsistencies.

We were stunned, by the end of the process, to discover the notes matched perfectly. Three Iraqi doctors, two nurses, one hospital administrator and other locals, one after another, all seamlessly debunking in granular detail the biggest Pentagon myth of the war in Iraq.

The outcome: this original Toronto Star account of the Lynch saga. Inigo did the same for his U.K. outlets.

Four days later, CNN's Aaron Brown placed us in the klieg lights for a live satellite broadcast to set the distorted record straight. 

We all get things wrong. Sometimes badly wrong. But the hardest, most sobering lesson I draw from the Lynch debacle is that even when you get it right, myth sometimes myth wins.

Jessica Lynch has done her part, in the ensuing years, to set the record straight. But war requires enemies, armies require heros. And, as she noted this month, if a frightening number of Americans continue to this day to believe the wildly inflated, Hollywood version of Lynch's rescue, "that's on them."

Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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