- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

ELIZABETH, W.Va. (AP) — Former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch returned home to a flag-waving hero’s welcome yesterday, saying “It’s great to be home” in her first public words since being rescued.

“I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped and prayed for my return,” said Pfc. Lynch, who was brought to the podium in a wheelchair wearing a beret and green Army dress uniform.

She received a standing ovation as she entered a media tent and made her brief remarks against the backdrop of a large American flag. Outside, friends and family waved flags and “Welcome Home Jessica” signs, while a marching band warmed up for a parade trumpeting her appearance.

The 20-year-old soldier said she did not realize for “a long time” that her ordeal had captured the concern of millions around the globe.

“But I’m beginning to understand because I’ve read thousands of cards and letters — many of them from children — that offer messages of hope and faith,” she said.

The former POW said she had read “thousands of stories” recounting that when she was rescued, she told U.S. Special Forces that she was an American soldier.

“Those stories were right. Those were my words. I’m an American soldier, too,” she said.

Pfc. Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company convoy was ambushed March 23 near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in an attack that killed 11 soldiers. U.S. forces rescued Pfc. Lynch at a Nasiriyah hospital April 1, while five other captured 507th troops, held apart from Pfc. Lynch, were released April 13.

Pfc. Lynch’s rescue quickly made an American hero of the petite blonde who joined the Army to get an education and become a kindergarten teacher.

“I’m proud to be a soldier in the Army. I’m proud to have served with the 507th. I’m happy that some soldiers I served with made it home alive. It hurts that some of my company didn’t,” she said.

Pfc. Lynch also said she was “thankful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital.”

She said she missed Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, who was her roommate, best friend and a member of the 507th. Pfc. Piestewa died of injuries received in the ambush.

“She fought beside me, and it was an honor to have served with her,” Pfc. Lynch said.

Suffering from multiple broken bones and other injuries, Pfc. Lynch had arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on April 12. She is ambulatory with the aid of a walker but still has trouble standing.

She spent more than 100 days at Walter Reed before being released yesterday morning. She boarded a Black Hawk helicopter for the trip to Wirt County, arriving in Elizabeth at 1:56 p.m.

After her remarks, Pfc. Lynch rode in a convertible in a military motorcade through Elizabeth and then to her newly remodeled home in Palestine, a community of about 300 about five miles away. Her home has been renovated with new accesses to accommodate Pfc. Lynch during her recovery.

Traci Lancaster, 28, came out to the parade to see her neighbor.

“I feel all the men and women over there are fighting for the future of my children. I’d do anything I could to honor them. If that means standing for five hours to see Jessi, that’s just fine.”

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