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Gary Younge
What about Private Lori?

On the face of it, Piestewa, from the Hopi tribe, does not fit the bill for the all-American war hero or heroine. She was a single mother of two who left her four-year-old son, Brandon, and three-year-old daughter, Carla, with her parents who live in a trailer in Tuba City, Arizona while she went to fight in the Middle East. But, in more ways than one, hers is the other American face of this war, fought by a military whose ranks have been swelled by poor, non-white women. A volunteer army comprising recruits who, whatever their patriotic credentials, have few other choices.

Tuba City is home mostly to Navajo people although it sits on the edge of a Hopi reservation - a piece of land returned to native Americans by the federal government. In theory, they are independent nations entering into bilateral treaties with the US government; in practice most reservations are situated on poor land with limited independence and home to the most impoverished minority in the country.

The Hopi land is no exception - a vast expanse of hundreds of miles of red rock and yellow sand peppered with trailers and brick housing that would not look out of place in a South African township. A nation of tumbleweed and tumbledown, where more than 50% of the inhabitants are unemployed.

It was not just the poverty of the reservation that made the armed forces an attractive proposition for Piestewa. Serving in the military is a family tradition. Her father fought in Vietnam and her grandfather served in the second world war. As a 17-year-old, she was the commanding officer of the Junior ROTC (cadet) programme at Tuba City High School, leading dozens of students in drills. Two years later she married a local man but divorced him shortly after Carla was born. She then joined the army partly out of an interest in the job, neighbours say, but primarily to provide a secure income with which to raise her children.

This community of 8,200, which according to the census is almost 95% native American, is tight-knit and tight-lipped. Since just about everyone knew her or her parents, nobody has been unaffected. Since the immediate family do not wish to talk to the media, few outside it will venture anything beyond, "She was a great girl", "We are very proud" and "It's so sad", for fear of appearing to be exploiting her death.

Evidence of her absence is everywhere. Small shrines with huge pictures of Piestewa have sprung up in the supermarket and outside her house. Shops have put donation buckets on display to raise money for her children, and two radio talk-show hosts in Phoenix are starting a trust fund to pay for the children's education.

Even the centuries-long feud between the Hopi and the Navajo has abated. At a rally last week, leaders from the two tribes made a rare joint appearance as about 5,000 people gathered to pray for Piestewa and the other missing soldiers. "Navajo, Hopi, nobody cares now," says Archie Ortiz, an army veteran. "We are all together in remembering her."

At least 45 Hopis are serving overseas and around 70 Navajos are in the Middle East. "You would think that the general history of native Americans would make them opposed to involvement in the military," says Tim Johnson, the executive editor of the country's leading weekly paper on native American affairs, Indian Country Today. There has been no specific polling of native American attitudes towards the war, although Johnson believes it would be slightly higher than average.

Indeed, during the first Gulf war a group of native Americans in Oregon wrote an open letter to President George Bush Sr, ridiculing his pretext for attacking Iraq. "Dear President Bush," it read. "Please send your assistance in freeing our small nation from occupation. This foreign force occupied our lands to steal our rich resources ... As in your own words, 'The occupation and overthrow of one small nation is one too many.' Yours sincerely, An American Indian."

Moreover, the army's sensitivity to native American culture leaves much to be desired, says Johnson. "They still talk about 'going into Indian country', meaning enemy territory," he says. They continue to dwell on the stereotype of native Americans as warriors, giving their missiles names like Apache and Tomahawk. "On the one hand they think of us as fierce warriors and on the other they refer to us as being hostile to American interests."

Yet after African-Americans, native Americans are the ethnic group represented most strongly in the military. In the second world war, the Navajo radio operators were known as the Codetalkers, after they used their complex language to devise a code for allied communications that the Japanese were never able to break. One of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima was a native American.

Johnson, whose father fought in Vietnam, believes there are two main reasons why so many of his people join up. The first is political: "Native Americans have a great appreciation for freedom and liberty," he says. The second is economic: native Americans are the poorest of all ethnic and racial groups in America. "The military is one world where people can build lives and make something else of themselves," he says.

This has made the American military more reliant on the poor, and therefore non-whites, than ever. In 1973, 23% of the military was from racial minorities; in 2000 it was 37%. While Hispanics remain underrepresented compared to the population as a whole, they are rapidly catching up. While the total number of military personnel dropped 23% in the last decade the number of Hispanics leaped 30%.

This growth has been particularly marked among women. In the army, black women, who make up only 16% of the female civilian population, actually outnumber white women.

"A survey of the American military's endlessly compiled and analysed demographics paints a picture of a fighting force that is anything but a cross-section of America, with minorities overrepresented and the wealthy and the underclass essentially absent," wrote the New York Times recently.

The subject has become highly sensitive politically, with the Democratic congressman from Harlem, Charles Rangel, calling for the return of the draft. "It's just not fair that the people we ask to fight our wars are people who join the military because of economic conditions, because they have fewer options," he says.

The family of Shawna Johnson, a black female prisoner of war in Iraq, say she wanted to be a chef but couldn't afford the training.

Not long after Piestewa's disappearance became known, the commanding officer of Tuba City high school's ROTC programme told the Arizona Republic she was no longer so keen on the military. "This is definitely teaching me the reality of life," said 16-year-old Dezbah Begay. "Maybe I'll become a chef or a police officer or a doctor instead."

If Piestewa was pulled by patriotism she was also, by all accounts, pushed by economics. From what she said in an interview before she left for Kuwait in February, it was clear that she would miss her children: "It's hard to leave them but they are going to be with their grandmother." However, it sounded as though she was heading for a big adventure rather than combat. "I'm excited to go see something new," she said. "I'm also going to learn a lot."

The family received an email from her a few weeks ago, saying she was about to enter Iraq and it "felt good that she was not sitting around and waiting any more".

Then came the news that soldiers had been captured, killed or were missing. Five of her colleagues, including Johnson, were questioned on Iraqi television; the Pentagon confirmed the death of two others. The fate of the other eight, of whom Piestewa was one, was unknown. For more than a week families of the two women waited for news. All around Tuba City signs were hung out telling people: "Put your porch light on, show Lori the way home." They used white stone to spell her name on a 200ft mesa just outside the town. News of Lynch's rescue last Tuesday raised hopes, but by Friday they were dashed again by a phone call from the army to say Piestewa was among the dead. The Lynch family heard the news just before boarding a flight to Germany to see Jessica.

Lynch will come home to West Virginia on crutches, to the waving of American flags; Piestewa will return to the reservation in a coffin draped in an American flag.

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