This photo of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was posted to her public Facebook… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' fans across the nation got their first glimpse of the Arizona congresswoman since she was shot in January, with two photos posted Sunday on her official Facebook page.
The images, taken May 17, stirred an outpouring of goodwill, with nearly 1,700 encouraging comments by nightfall.
A close friend of Giffords said Sunday that her communication skills were improving. Her chief of staff had said Giffords was often forced to rely on gestures and facial expressions. But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Giffords was speaking in sentences.
Photos: Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona
Giffords and a dozen others were seriously wounded and six people were killed in a shooting rampage outside a Tucson grocery store. The alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, but his prosecution could go forward if his condition improves.
In the new photos, the Tucson Democrat's hair is dark and closely cropped, rather than the shoulder-length blond style she wore before the Jan. 8 assassination attempt. But her beaming smile is intact.
One of the photos is posed, with Giffords looking directly at the camera. The other is more casual and shows her sitting alongside her mother, Gloria Giffords.
Giffords spokesman C.J. Karamargin said Sunday that the photos were intended to help satisfy "intense interest in the congresswoman's appearance."
Her staff hopes the images will reduce unwanted photography when she begins visiting an outpatient clinic.
"What we wanted to avoid was a paparazzi-like frenzy," he told the Associated Press.
Her staff hopes Giffords will be released from the hospital within the next month, he said. After that, she'll receive outpatient therapy.
During an interview with the Arizona Republic published last week, Chief of Staff Pia Carusone was asked when the public would get a look at Giffords.
"This is a one-step-at-a-time process," Carusone said. "I think that we're getting close to the time when Gabby will feel comfortable releasing a photo. Then, we go from there."
The latest photos were taken by photojournalist P.K. Weis of SouthwestPhotoBank.com, a longtime photographer for the now-defunct Tucson Citizen who has known Giffords for more than a decade.
Weis took the pictures at the Houston rehabilitation center where Giffords is being treated. The photo session occurred the day before she underwent a cranioplasty to repair part of her skull that was removed because of brain swelling — and the day after the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, a mission commanded by her husband, Mark E. Kelly. Giffords traveled to Cape Canaveral in Florida to see the launch but did not appear in public.
"Any photographer in the country would have loved the opportunity to take these pictures and I was delighted to be asked," Weis said in a statement.
"It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered in 4 1/2 months," he added. "I was excited to see her and to see her smile. She was glad to see me, was in a good mood, smiling and laughing and seemed to enjoy the experience. I certainly did too."
Facebook fans also sounded thrilled.
"The same smile, the same attitude," a woman said. "We can't wait until you are back in Congress!"
"We love Gabby Giffords," a man wrote. "Her name will go down in history and her beautiful face is etched into our hearts. Her lovely new photo made our day! We send blessings and prayers every day, every hour. We can't wait to see her back in Tucson."
Giffords' staff has indicated that it hopes she will be released from TIRR Memorial Hermann hospital in Houston within the next month, but cautioned that she has a long road ahead.
"If she were to plateau today, and this was as far as she gets, it would not be nearly the quality of life she had before," Carusone said in the Arizona Republic interview. "There's no comparison. All that we can hope for is that she won't plateau today and that she'll keep going and that when she does plateau, it will be at a place far away from here."
Carusone told the Republic that Giffords was having trouble finding words and forming sentences. She was shot in the area of the brain that governs language, and shards of the bullet remain in her head.
Wasserman Schultz said she and Giffords spoke on the phone Wednesday for the first time since the shooting.
"She spoke to me in full sentences, initiated those sentences, instead of just responding, which is what she'd really only been able to do recently," Schultz said on "Meet the Press."
"And she's making remarkable progress. We're so proud of her. She's working so hard. She's got a long way to go. But you can just see how beautiful she is, and we are longing and looking forward to her coming back."
Photos: Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona