ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. — Air Force Capt. Scott F. O'Grady returned to America on Sunday, embracing his family with long, teary hugs and declaring a new belief in miracles to a crowd gathered to welcome the rescued pilot home.
As he stepped from the plane at Andrews Air Force Base, the F-16 pilot who spent nearly six days in hiding after being shot down over Bosnia-Herzegovina waved and saluted the crowd before being reunited with his family members. While clutching his sister, Stacy, O'Grady let out a deep sob, seemingly oblivious to the military brass surrounding him.
After wiping the tears from his eyes, he told the crowd that in the past he had doubted that miracles were possible but credited God with the miracle of keeping him alive through his Bosnian ordeal.
"It wouldn't have been possible without his love and all your prayers," O'Grady, 29, told a few hundred well-wishers at the base outside Washington. "When I was out there, I heard all your prayers. I heard them all loud and clear.
"All I want to say is, God bless America and I love you all."
Even before greeting his family, O'Grady was embraced by Gen. Ronald R. Fogelman, the Air Force chief of staff.
Fogelman told the crowd that O'Grady was standing before them only because of his training, "tenacious will to live" and faith in God and the "heroic efforts" of the Marine-led rescue mission that brought him out under fire.
"His return exemplifies both the strength of America and the commitment of its people," Fogelman said. "Scott, I've got to tell you: We celebrate your rescue, we salute those who made it possible, and we thank God for your return."
O'Grady grew up in Spokane, Wash., but his father, radiologist William O'Grady, lives in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. Sister Stacy, 26, a teacher in the Chicago area, and brother Paul, 25, a dental student in North Carolina, joined their father in Alexandria after learning that their brother's F-16 had been struck by a missile June 2 while he was flying on a mission over Bosnia. The pilot's mother, who lives in Seattle, flew across the country to be on hand when her son returned.
Today, O'Grady and his family will lunch with President Clinton before a Pentagon ceremony honoring the pilot.
One of those who gathered to welcome O'Grady on Sunday was Thomas Katt, 24, an electronics technician who lives on the base.
"We see him as the newest hero in America," Katt said, holding his 6-month-old daughter in his arms. "There are not many people who could live through something like that."
Sean Berry, 12, who held a colorful sign that he and his younger brother and sister had decorated, agreed that anyone who could make it through what O'Grady had--nearly six days in hostile territory where you "have to eat bugs and drink rainwater and walk around in the wilderness"--is a hero in his book.
But while some called O'Grady a hero, others said he was just a brave and fortunate man who did his duty.
"I have mixed feelings," said Mark Harrison, 21, a midshipman from the Naval Academy who traveled by bus with dozens of his classmates to honor O'Grady. "He did his job and he did it well. Does that make you a hero? I'm not sure."
"But I'm proud of him," Harrison added with a smile. "It makes us all look good."
O'Grady himself had tried to muffle the hero talk when he spoke to reporters Saturday at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
"I'm not a hero. All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to hide, trying to survive," O'Grady said.
Nonetheless, O'Grady clearly has won many American hearts.
"I'm proud he's an American," said Christina Hilton, 28, an Air Force intelligence analyst who works for the National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Md., who held one end of a massive white sign that read: "Basher52 America's been Praying. Welcome Home Scott O'Grady."
"Last week I was so worried about this guy. I didn't know who he was, but I did a lot of praying for him," she said. "It's amazing that he is alive and standing in front of us."