07/23/2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jessica Lynch, the injured 507th Maintenance Company Army private whose still not fully known ordeal in Iraq has become a model of U.S. heroism under fire, returned home to Palestine, W. Va., on Tuesday to the embrace of loved ones and cheers from well-wishers, reports Reuters.
"I had no idea so many people knew I was missing," the supply clerk, 20, said in a brief prepared statement. The words were Lynch's first public remarks since her capture by Iraqi forces on March 23 near the city of Nassiriya before her subsequent April 1 rescue by U.S. commandos.
Sitting in a wheelchair before a large American flag, dressed in an Army beret and uniform, Lynch -- who has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War medals -- expressed sorrow over the deaths of 11 comrades including another female soldier, "my best friend," PFC Lori Ann Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz. All had been killed when their unit fell into an ambush.
Lynch, whose home has been specially outfitted to accommodate her wheelchair, arrived in her Appalachian community aboard an Army Blackhawk helicopter with her family at her side, NBC News reports.
She later rode a red Mustang convertible on a five-mile trek to her home while hundreds of admirers waved flags, donned yellow ribbons and held up posters displaying her photograph.
West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise called it "a homecoming for the world."