Shot down over Bosnia and alive to tell about it, Air Force Capt. Scott F. O’Grady returned to his home base Friday to a hero’s welcome. His eyes welled with tears as he thanked God and the Marines for his rescue.
“When I was out there, I knew you were all there behind me,” O’Grady told the emotional crowd of 500 people - uniformed officers, family members, journalists and well-wishers - who had gathered in a hangar at Aviano Air Base to greet him. “I could hear you, and I knew it. I knew that everything that could be possibly done was being done. … And I appreciate everything you did to get me back to be standing here at Aviano.”
His F-16 cut in two by a Bosnian Serb missile on June 2, O’Grady parachuted to earth and survived in the Bosnian wilderness for six days, low on provisions and surrounded by hostile Serb forces, before being rescued Thursday in a dramatic operation led by the Marines.
After spending nearly a week in tense, silent solitude, O’Grady on Friday was the focal point of loud celebration. Schoolchildren sang the national anthem. NATO jets flew past in formation. Rock music blared from loudspeakers while television crews trained their bright lights on anyone who had anything to do with O’Grady’s rescue - and especially on O’Grady himself.
O’Grady strode into the hangar wearing a broad smile. But tears began to fill his eyes as he thanked his rescuers. “They risked their lives to get me out. If you want to find some heroes, that’s where you should look,” he said. “They are the biggest heroes in the world.”
He said almost nothing about what he did on the ground in Bosnia to evade capture, except to thank “God’s love” for seeing him through. He embraced several fellow pilots who had flown with him before his crash, including one who saw his F-16 jet hit by a missile, and then left to detail his saga to military debriefers.
O’Grady arrived in Aviano by small jet from Ancona, Italy, after having spent a night of rest offshore on the USS Kearsarge, the amphibious assault ship from which O’Grady’s rescue was launched. On Thursday, a Marine helicopter had flown him to the ship after rescuing him from a hillside in Bosnia and evading missiles and small-arms fire as it returned.
His rescue ended a wrenching period of worry for those who knew O’Grady was missing - and for policy-makers in Washington, where the Clinton administration has worked to keep troops out of the three-sided Bosnia war.
Capt. Bob Wright, who flew in a jet tandem with O’Grady the day of the downing, said he saw the hit. “His F-16 became pretty much a big fireball,” Wright said.
But Wright added he was confident that O’Grady would survive, because the cockpit was not destroyed. “As long as he got out, I knew we would get him home,” Wright said.
O’Grady’s welcome was celebrated with champagne, soft drinks and a cake decorated with an American flag and the nickname Zulu, which was given O’Grady by his “triple nickel” 555th Fighter Squadron in the 31st Fighter Wing.
The festive atmosphere was reminiscent of celebrations for returned hostages from Lebanon or Iran - events that are in some ways becoming a tradition.