Former POW ''Returns to the Mountains''

July 22, 2003 - Posted at: 1:42 p.m. CDT

ELIZABETH, W.Va. - Former POW Jessica Lynch returned home aboard an Army helicopter Tuesday for an expected hero's welcome, nearly four months after she was ambushed by Iraqi forces and later rescued from a hospital.

The helicopter landed in Elizabeth at about 1:56 p.m. after flying over Lynch's residence in nearby Palestine, a tiny town in the rolling green hills of West Virginia. The 20-year-old Army supply clerk, severely injured in an ambush in Iraq in March, left Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington at about 10:30 a.m, the hospital said.

Lynch was to make brief public remarks from a wheelchair in a park minutes after the arrival — her first public words since her ordeal.

The hospital issued a statement by Lynch in which she thanked the medical team who cared for her.

"I also thank all the well-wishers for all their cards, letters, banners and posters," Lynch's statement said. "These really raised my spirits and kept me going."

Suffering from multiple broken bones and other injuries, Lynch had arrived at Walter Reed, the Defense Department's largest medical facility, on April 12.

She was being accompanied by her parents and a unit from the Parkersburg National Guard, which includes Lynch's cousin, Dan Little.

"We are excited just to see her, just to be able to give her a hug," her grandmother Wyonema Lynch said earlier. "To Jessi, home is in the hills. She has been wanting to get here."

Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company convoy was ambushed March 23 near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers were killed. U.S. forces rescued Lynch at a Nasiriyah hospital April 1. Five other captured 507th soldiers, held apart from Lynch, were released April 13.

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

Using 1,600 yards of donated lawn chair material, town workers hung hundreds of yellow bows along the motorcade route from Elizabeth to Palestine, about five miles away. By midmorning, seven dozen people gathered along the route to welcome Lynch home.

"We're here to see history," said Mary Elder, 52, of St. Marys.

Some residents felt let down because Lynch's remarks were to be closed to the public.

"It's very disappointing but we hope eventually she will come out and do something for the community," said Tammy Simms of Elizabeth, whose daughter graduated from Wirt County High School with Lynch.

"I just want to see her face. I can't wait to see her face," Simms said Tuesday.

Hundreds of journalists were in this 1,000-person county seat to report Lynch's arrival. Officers with bomb-sniffing dogs swept the media tent at the park where Lynch was to speak.

In Palestine, visitors could buy commemorative envelopes with a Purple Heart stamp issued earlier this year by the U.S. Postal Service. The stamp's cancellation says, "Jessica Lynch Station, Palestine, WV".

On Monday, Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals. The Bronze Star is given for meritorious combat service, a Purple Heart is most often awarded to those wounded in combat, and the POW for being held captive during wartime.

Little, who has spoken twice with his cousin in the past week, said Lynch's spirits have been buoyed by her imminent homecoming.

"She's a strong, disciplined young lady," Little said. "Her injuries are long healing, and that can be hard if you dwell on it. But she's not allowed that to happen."

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