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AUSTIN—Though former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch and film star Rita Moreno come from vastly different backgrounds, their stories of persevering through challenges kept the audience transfixed on the opening day of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Diversity & Inclusion Conference.
Lynch joined the military to get an education, with an eye toward becoming a school teacher. She was serving as a Quartermaster Corps Private First Class (PFC) in the U.S. Army after high school in West Virginia when she found herself, at 19, deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a part of the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company.
Her company was in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, at the end of a 100-mile-long convoy of trucks, troops and weapons when it became separated from the rest of the group, took a wrong turn, and was ambushed by Iraqis.
"We were like ducks in the middle of a pond with nowhere to go," Lynch told a rapt audience. "There were gunshots, bombs exploding, rocket-propelled grenades, and trucks on fire." Her weapon, and those of most of the others she was with, malfunctioned during the fracas.
"I remember the chaos, the courage of my fellow comrades and then nothing. I had been knocked unconscious." The driver—Lynch's best friend, Army Spc. Lori Ann Piestewa—lost control of the Humvee they were in and slammed into the back of an 18-wheel vehicle that had jackknifed in front of them. Lynch was the only survivor.
Lynch initially was listed as missing in action; she woke up later in an Iraqi hospital "with these Iraqis staring at me and I remember thinking 'where am I? How did I get here? Where are my comrades?'"
She suffered a host of injuries that included cracked ribs, a shattered right arm, a broken left leg, fractures to her spine that caused nerve damage, internal injuries, and head wounds. Her weight dropped to 89 pounds. She said she received orange juice but no water, food or pain medication.
Lynch was rescued nine days later on April 1. She was the first American POW since World War II—and the first-ever woman—to be successfully rescued. She was honorably discharged in July 2003, has undergone an estimated 22 surgeries, and was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals. She was the subject of the biography, I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story (Vintage, 2003).
Upon returning home, Lynch earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in corporate and organizational communication studies, and she plans to pursue a doctoral degree. She became a school teacher and is engaged to a fellow soldier. They have a daughter, Dakota Ann, whom they named for Lynch's friend Piestewa. Dakota's name is an homage to Piestewa's Native American heritage.
The poem "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost resonates with Lynch, who quoted the following:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
"The road you … travel may not be your choice," Lynch said, "but cherish what you are given, live life to the fullest and make a difference."
From Tenement to Tinseltown
Hollywood film star and author Rita Moreno displayed her showmanship as she transfixed the audience with the story of how she left her home in Puerto Rico as a child to come to the U.S. with her mother. She recalled the Statue of Liberty "welcoming everyone from around the world to come here," and their struggles as immigrants in the Bronx. She joked about living in grimy tenements that were so small the cockroaches stood on top of each other.
Moreno also dished about her days at MGM and her love for Marlon Brando that consumed her "like a fever" for eight years. Then she serenaded the audience a capella with a Ray Charles tune:
Dream, when you're feeling blue.
Dream, that's the thing to do.
Just watch the smoke rings rise in the air.
You'll find your share of memories there.
So dream when the day is through.
Dream, and they might come true.
Things never are as bad as they seem.
So dream, dream, dream.
Moreno realized her dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood and has won two Emmys, a Golden Globe, an Oscar and a Tony. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller, Rita Moreno: A Memoir (Celebra, 2014), has served on the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities, and in 2015 received an honorary doctorate from the Berkley School of Music.
But in the early stages of her career she played an endless array of what she called "dusky maiden roles" of various ethnicities who were portrayed as ignorant, uneducated, passive, illiterate and morally bankrupt. It was not until she was 28 years old and starring as Anita in "West Side Story," that she played a woman who stood up for herself. She was the first Latina actress to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
"I had no role models," she said, although she would come to realize that the way her mother lived her life modeled strength, tenacity, perseverance and "a spirit that would not surrender."
Today, said the 84-year-old Moreno, "I know who I am."
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