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Tuesday, July 22

Rescued POW Lynch returns to W.Va.

By The (Huntington, W.Va.) Herald-Dispatch

ELIZABETH, W.Va. - From the sky, she could see a group of well-wishers who had stretched out a large American flag as a welcome.

"If it wasn't for her ears, her smile would have cut her head in half," said Staff Sgt. Paula Tucker, a flight medic on the military helicopter that safely brought former POW Jessica Lynch home to West Virginia on Tuesday.

When Lynch was wheeled up a ramp for her long-anticipated first appearance before reporters and photographers, she was steady and composed. Wearing her dress uniform with her blond hair tied back in a twist beneath her black beret, the 20-year-old Army private first class spoke slowly and clearly.

"Thank you for being here," she said. "It's great to be home. I would like to say thank you to everyone who hoped and prayed for my safe return."

It was the first of many thanks she gave Tuesday to supporters, community members, loved ones, staff at military hospitals and elected officials who helped make sure her family could stay by her side during the past few months.

Lynch has worked her way into the hearts of strangers around the globe since late March, when she was declared missing after her maintenance company was ambushed in Nasiriyah.

She was found April 1 in an Iraqi hospital and since mid-April had been recovering from several broken bones at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Tuesday was Lynch's first encounter with the media, and she seemed to hold up under the spotlight. Journalists welcomed her with warm applause.

Wires, cameras and eager reporters packed a white tent set up over tennis courts in the 1,000-resident town of Elizabeth, a few miles from Lynch's home in Palestine. Community members and supporters from other areas closed in around the media-restricted area to catch a glimpse of Lynch and to voice their thanks and welcome.

Lynch continued pouring out thanks Tuesday by mentioning her gratitude for "several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital.

"And then a unit of our special forces soldiers did save my life," she said.

She smiled and looked over to her boyfriend, a young, dark-haired serviceman sitting with family members as she said, "I want to thank Sergeant Ruben Contreras. Ruben, you never let me give up. When I got down, you picked me up. When I wanted to quit (physical therapy), you made me keep going. You're my inspiration. Thank you."

Before Lynch spoke, her brother, Greg Lynch Jr., extended condolences to those who lost loved ones in the war with Iraq and those waiting for soldiers to return home.

And he said he was proud to introduce his younger sister, who as a child, he thought should be looking to him as an example.

Now he looks to her, he said.

"She has done great things for herself and the Army," he said.

Lynch said she was proud to be a soldier in the U.S. Army but she also solemnly acknowledged the death of her best friend, Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa. Piestewa was the only female soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom."I'm proud to have served with the 507th," she said, referring to her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company. "I'm happy that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive. It hurts that some of my company didn't. I miss Lori. She was my best friend. She fought beside me, and it was an honor to have served with her."

News stories that had reported Lynch as saying, "I'm an American soldier, too," when Marines found her in an Iraqi hospital were true, she said.

"Those were my words," she said. "I'm an American soldier, too. Thank you for this welcome. It's great to be home."

After her remarks, the audience erupted with applause. Lynch smiled and within moments she wheeled away. There was no question-and-answer period after her remarks.

Onlookers lined the route to her home, waving flags and raising homemade signs.

Penny DeVore, one of many fellow West Virginians who drove to Wirt County to see Lynch, said, "She's an American hero. She sacrificed for our country, and she's a sweetie."

On Monday, she was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and POW medals at the medical center, where she was being treated for fractures and other wounds since arriving April 12.

Lynch was among seven soldiers taken captive after the 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed March 23 near Nasiriyah. Nine members of the 507th and two soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Combat Support Battalion who were attached to the 507th, died in the action. U.S. forces rescued the Army supply clerk from an Iraqi hospital several days later, reportedly after a tip from an Iraqi lawyer.

Lt. Gen. James B. Peake, the U.S. Army surgeon general, said Monday that the Purple Heart is awarded to a person who has given more to his or her country than just service.

"They have given of themselves by going into harm's way,'' he said. "The Bronze Star is given for meritorious service in combat and the POW Medal is one that very few people receive.''

Other members of Lynch's unit injured and held captive also received medals during a July Fourth ceremony at Fort Bliss, Texas, where 507th is based.