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'Freedom is not free': 20 years later, Lori Piestewa's son and mother reflect on her legacy

This week marks 20 years since U.S. Army Specialist Lori Piestewa was killed on the front lines, the first woman service member to die in Iraq.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For the past 20 years, Brandon Whiterock has faced impossible questions.

“Why did God have to take my mom so early? Is it for a reason? Is it for a certain thing?" Whiterock asked.

He's had to ask himself these questions since he was just 4 years old.

Now, he's 24, a year older than his mom was when she was killed in the line of duty.

His sister, Carla Piestewa, is now 23 years old.

“Now that I’m a lot older, I'm able to see and look at this, that her service in the military actually brought everyone together," Whiterock said.

On March 23, 2003, U.S. Army Specialist Lori Piestewa was deployed in Iraq and on a convoy when her group was ambushed. Piestewa, her best friend, roommate Jessica Lynch, and others were taken prisoner. Piestewa didn't survive.

It marked a grim milestone. She became the first woman service member to die in Iraq and the first Native American woman killed while fighting for the United States military.

Piestewa was from Tuba City and was a member of the Hopi tribe.

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“A death of a military person does not just affect your kids; it doesn't just affect the parents. It affects the whole community," said Percy Piestewa, Lori's mother.

"She felt that the military would give her the money to fend for her kids and then that would give her educational benefits. And that was her prime reason for going into the military was Brandon and Carla."

Piestewa's family said many moments over the past two decades have made it clear she is still a part of them.

“You can be walking down the street or shopping in the grocery store and you hear a voice, or you feel a presence, and you know who it is," Percy Piestewa said.

Whiterock said his mother's story and sacrifice was difficult to learn about. Ultimately, though, it motivated him to find his own purpose and he now works in Veteran and Military Services at Northern Arizona University, his alma mater.

“It taught me that freedom is not free," Whiterock said. "And once you sign your name on that dotted line, you are signing, basically, your life.”

Piestewa's family is preparing to head to the Valley for a reception in her honor. On Wednesday night, they will be at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Community Center with Gold Star families. 

On Thursday, the anniversary, there will be a sunrise service at Piestewa Peak's Ocotillo Ramada. Jessica Lynch, Lori Piestewa's best friend and former POW, will be in attendance, along with former POWs Shoshana Johnson, Patrick Miller, Joseph Hudson and Edgar Hernandez.

“There was a time in my life where I dreaded this day so much," Whiterock said. "But then it came to the point where it's kind of reverse. And now I look forward to this day because it brings all my mom's comrades together.”

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