Image: Homecoming
Pfc. Jessica Lynch waves to well-wishers, with her brother Spc. Greg Lynch Jr. at her side, as she rides in a convertible during her homecoming parade Tuesday in Elizabeth, W.Va.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/23/2003 3:00:14 AM ET 2003-07-23T07:00:14

Pfc. Jessica Lynch, whose capture and rescue in Iraq turned her into a national sweetheart, spent the first night in her own home since her ordeal, returning to a changed hometown and a shattered anonymity. But townspeople said they would do their best to allow the wounded soldier to mend in private.

Residents of this small town said that Lynch, who returned home to cheers and tears on Tuesday, needs to be left alone to continue her recovery from gunshot wounds suffered when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq.

“We are all happy she is back,” said Cleo Lawson, of Elizabeth. “Now just let the girl rest. It’s going to be a new life for her.”

Lynch, whose ordeal in Iraq was hyped into a media fiction of heroism, addressed well-wishers Tuesday after a homecoming parade held in her honor, speaking from a wheelchair at a town park festooned with flags and yellow ribbons. In her first public comments since her capture and rescue, Lynch read a brief statement at the park after being introduced by her brother, Army Spec. Greg Lynch, and Gov. Bob Wise.

“I’m proud to be a soldier in the Army,” said Lynch in a statement full of thanks for the medical teams that cared for her, for her Army compatriots both living and dead, for Iraqi citizens who aided her while she lay wounded in an Iraqi hospital and for the special operations forces that retrieved her.

Lynch, able to walk with the aid of a walker but still having trouble standing, received a standing ovation as she entered a media tent and made her brief remarks against the backdrop of a large American flag. Outside, friends and family waved flags and “Welcome Home Jessica” signs, while a marching band warmed up for a parade trumpeting Lynch’s return home.

The 20-year-old former POW said she did not realize for “a long time” that her ordeal had captured the hearts of millions around the globe.

‘MESSAGES OF HOPE, FAITH’

“But I’m beginning to understand because I’ve read thousands of cards and letters — many of them from children — that offer messages of hope and faith,” she said.

Lynch said she had read “thousands of stories” recounting that when she was rescued, she told U.S. special forces soldiers that she was an American soldier.

“Those stories were right. Those were my words. ‘I’m an American soldier, too,’” she said.

Lynch also said she was “thankful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital.”

Lynch said she missed Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, who was her roommate, best friend and a member of the 507th. Piestewa died of injuries suffered in the ambush.

“She fought beside me, and it was an honor to have served with her,” Lynch said.

CHEERS EN ROUTE TO PALESTINE

After the brief remarks, Lynch was wheeled from the tent and got into a convertible for the drive to her home in Palestine. She and her brother waved to cheering crowds along the five-mile route as news helicopters in the air and camera operators and microphone boom operators on the ground followed. Lynch entered her parents’ home and was embraced by relatives and friends.

Lynch arrived earlier in Elizabeth in an Army Black Hawk helicopter on a baseball field after flying over Palestine, her hometown. She then boarded a bus that took her in a motorcade toward the center of Elizabeth for the remarks.

Suffering from multiple broken bones and other injuries, she had arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, the Defense Department’s largest medical facility, on April 12. She left Walter Reed at about 10:30 a.m. on an Army Black Hawk helicopter, accompanied by her parents and a unit from the Parkersburg National Guard, which includes her cousin, Dan Little.

PROPAGANDA?

But even as family and friends welcomed home the 20-year-old supply clerk, media critics said the TV cameras showed not so much the return of an injured soldier as a reality TV drama co-produced by U.S. government propaganda and credulous reporters.

“It no longer matters in America whether something is true or false. The population has been conditioned to accept anything: sentimental stories, lies, atomic bomb threats,” said John MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s magazine.

Lynch was in a 507th Maintenance Company convoy on March 23 when her company was ambushed near the city of Nasiriyah. Eleven soldiers died and nine were wounded in a 90-minute firefight.

Lynch became a national hero after media reports quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying she fought fiercely before being captured, firing on Iraqi forces despite sustaining multiple gunshot and stab wounds.

FOG OF WAR LIFTS

In the end, Army investigators concluded that Lynch was injured when her Humvee crashed into another vehicle in the convoy after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Far from a scene of battlefield heroism, the Army said the convoy blundered into the ambush after getting lost and many of the unit’s weapons malfunctioned during the battle.

The U.S. military also released video taken during an apparently daring rescue by American special forces who raided the Iraqi hospital where she was being treated.

Iraqi doctors at the hospital said later the U.S. rescuers had faced no resistance and the operation had been over-dramatized. Five other 507th Maintenance Company soldiers who were captured and held apart from Lynch were freed April 13.

Lynch herself has been quoted as saying she can remember nothing of the ambush or the rescue.

“The failure here was that the news media got to thinking the government could be trusted to reflect reality,” said Carolyn Marvin, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Florida had no comment when asked about assertions that the heroism tale was government propaganda.

POST OMBUDSMAN’S CRITICISM

The Washington Post, which was the first to report the heroic version of Lynch’s capture, came under sharp criticism from its own ombudsman, Michael Getler, for its handling of the story.

“Why did the information in that first story, which was wrong in its most compelling aspects, remain unchallenged for so long?” Getler asked.

“What were the motivations (and even the identities) of the leakers and sustainers of this myth, and why didn’t reporters dig deeper into it more quickly? The story had an odor to it almost from the beginning,” he said.

The Lynch story also exposed CBS News to criticism after the network offered Lynch a movie deal while trying to persuade her to give an interview about her experiences.

On Sunday, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves admitted that CBS News probably erred in offering the deal.

HOMETOWN STILL PROUD

In Palestine, a rural neighborhood 225 miles west of Washington, residents were more concerned with protecting Lynch from the reporters who have flooded into the community for her homecoming.

“She’s a hometown hero, no doubt about that,” said shopkeeper J.T. O’Rock as he hung a flag and a yellow ribbon on his storefront.

“That poor little girl will have to hide just to get any peace and quiet,” he added.

On Monday, Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals at Walter Reed. 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.

Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people were expected to line the route of the military motorcade that was taking her home to Palestine Tuesday afternoon.

Using 1,600 yards of donated lawn chair material, town workers have hung hundreds of yellow bows along the five-mile motorcade route.

(The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)

© 2013 msnbc.com

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