The Long Road Home

updated 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Under a white tent in Elizabeth, W.Va., Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 20, edged her wheelchair closer to a microphone and spoke publicly for the first time since her April 1 rescue from Iraqi captivity became world news. "I had no idea," she said, "so many people knew I was missing."

Now, it seemed, they all wanted to welcome her back. Home again almost four months to the day after her humvee took a wrong turn in southern Iraq, Lynch modestly used her time at the microphone to remember fallen comrades—in particular her best friend, Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, one of 11 members of the 507th Maintenance Company who died during the March 23 ambush. "She fought beside me, and it was an honor to have served with her. Lori will always be in my heart," said Lynch, who also thanked the Iraqi citizens who helped save her life and U.S. Special Forces who came to her rescue.

Then, accompanied by her father, Gregory, 43; mother, Dee, 41; brother Greg, 21, a fellow soldier; and sister Brandi, 18, Lynch, wearing a crisp Class A uniform and three new decorations—the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and the POW medal—climbed into a red Mustang convertible lent by the local Ford dealership for a triumphal five-mile drive-about through an adoring crowd. At the end she reached the town of Palestine, where her family's house has been almost doubled in size by friends and neighbors who built a two story addition with four new rooms, including a wheelchair-accessible bath for Jessica (see box, above). "It's just such a close community," says contractor Doug Parsons, who helped out. "She's one of our own."

Of course, Lynch's life has changed even more fundamentally than the house. Full details of the ambush that her unit endured and the now controversial midnight rescue that thrust her into the spotlight may never be known. Some critics in the U.S. and Britain have charged that the Pentagon—anxious for some good news from the war in Iraq—either exaggerated details of her capture and rescue or at least failed to correct media reports the military knew to be overly dramatic. Lynch may not be able to shed further light: She has memories of some aspects of the ambush but not the full chain of events. "She remembers fleeing from the Iraqis, and then she remembers our guys coming in to pull her out," says Dr. Greg Argyros, who led the team charged with Lynch's care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "But she does have that period of time from the attack until she woke up at the Iraqi hospital where she has no recollection of any events." (For an account of the ambush by members of Jessica's company, see page 51.)

Though Lynch downplayed her own heroics, those who have cared for her in the 100 days since her return to the U.S. say her courage is beyond question. Her recovery is "absolutely remarkable," declares Argyros, who oversaw two operations and twice-daily rehab sessions to treat a laundry list of wounds, including a scalp laceration and fractured bones in her back, right arm, both legs and right foot—all of which, says Argyros, seem to have been the result of the high-speed collision of the humvee Lynch was traveling in with another vehicle. (Earlier reports that she was tortured, shot or beaten with rifle butts have been discounted.) "There were times when she became emotional, but she's stoic," says the doctor. "The thing that's most impressive is that she's gone from a situation where she was in pain with any movement to the point where yesterday she was walking with the parallel bars, going up and down steps and riding the stationary bike."

As a smiling Lynch made sure to mention during her press conference, she had plenty of help from family—and from her boyfriend, Ruben Contreras, a 6-ft., 24-year-old sergeant who was stationed in Kuwait during most of the conflict and is now back at Fort Bliss, Texas. An ex-high school wrestling star from Colorado Springs, he met Lynch in El Paso last June, although the pair initially kept their relationship low-key since Army culture discourages dating between enlisted soldiers of differing ranks.

By the time the couple celebrated their first anniversary at Walter Reed hospital in early June, however, everything was out in the open. Contreras arrived at Lynch's bedside for a 10-day visit bearing a special gift—a platinum "promise ring" with a solitary marquise-cut diamond. His mother, Lisa Latorre, helped him pick out the present. "Jessi says she never takes it off," reports Latorre, 46, who works for a computer firm. "She's a wonderful girl. Hopefully wedding bells are right around the corner." Adds Lynch's grandmother Wyonema of Contreras, who was with Lynch at her homecoming: "He's awful good with Jessi, the way he takes care of her."

Now on medical leave from the military, Lynch will continue her rehabilitation with the help of local doctors. Dr. Argyros expects a full physical recovery. In the meantime, her friends say Lynch has only begun to adjust to her new fame. "She has no clue what a celebrity she is," says family friend Debbie Hennen. "She wants to go to the county fair—she wants to go through the barns because she used to raise steers. On a normal day anybody could get through—but Jessi?"

Indeed, neighbors are sure to form a protective shell around their most famous citizen. And there are signs this mountain girl may be savvy enough to take care of herself. Despite a deluge of offers from the world's media, Lynch is giving no interviews until after her planned book goes to press. "She sees this as her big chance to have a really different life," says a relative. "She doesn't want to do anything that would upset it." Not that she's complaining about having her old life back. As she said to the world on July 22, "It's great to be home."

Richard Jerome and J. D. Heyman
Jason Bane in Colorado Springs, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., Rose Ellen O'Connor in Elizabeth, W.Va., and Zelie Pollon in El Paso

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