ELIZABETH, W.Va. - She whirled in on a Black Hawk helicopter, addressed throngs of reporters and waved from a military motorcade to the thousands who lined the route to see the little girl from West Virginia-turned-celebrity POW return home.
"Hi. Thank you for being here," Pfc. Jessica Lynch said yesterday from a wheelchair, clad in a green Army dress uniform and beret. "It's great to be home. I would like to say thank you to everyone who hoped and prayed for my safe return."
In the four months since her unit was ambushed in southern Iraq, Lynch has become one symbol after another for a public grasping to understand the war and its aftermath.
First, she was the country girl from Appalachia, a gutsy teen-ager who wanted to be a kindergarten teacher and joined the Army for educational opportunities unavailable to kids of modest means, only to end up missing in action.
Then, with her nighttime rescue from an Iraqi hospital, she provided a ray of hope at a time when Americans were bludgeoned with bad news from the front.
As stories about her capture and rescue emerged from anonymous sources, Lynch became a female Rambo who emptied her weapon against her attackers before being shot, stabbed and captured.
And when those details were revealed to be wrong, and further questions arose about whether her rescuers even encountered Iraqi resistance when they entered the hospital, critics accused the Pentagon of embellishing its war reporting and using Lynch as propaganda.
"It threw everybody off course in not knowing what to believe," said Emzy Ashby, who owns the What-Not Shop, the only store in Lynch's hometown of Palestine (population 300), which sells just about everything, most of it secondhand, from bug killer to lamps and chairs.
"Even today, we don't know what doctors to believe, what military people to believe - we don't even know whether to believe our president," Ashby said as neighbors gathered outside to watch Lynch's motorcade arrive from Elizabeth, the Wirt County seat.
"It angers me because of them not knowing the truth before they started talking. As far as I'm concerned, it was like telling lies. You shouldn't ever talk until you know what you're talking about."
Meanwhile, Lynch's story - details of which remain unclear because Lynch is said to have little memory of her captivity - is the subject of an NBC-TV movie in-the-making and aggressive efforts by media corporations to land exclusive interviews. CBS offered book and film deals while pursuing a news interview.
But in Wirt County, a stretch of rolling green hills and streams that meander through lush hollows, people closest to Lynch say they have little interest in Jessica the symbol. They choose instead to focus on the woman, now 20, who left months ago solidly on two feet and now - even after months of treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for broken bones and spinal and head injuries - can walk only short distances with the help of a walker and needs a wheelchair for anything longer.
"Actually, we don't care what the government said or what they didn't say, or what was right and what was wrong - for us it's all about Jessi," said Pam Nicolais, a cousin.
"We give thanks and praise to God for using good people to go over there and bring her out. And the military, whether they stormed the building, whether they needed to or not, we don't care."
Her parents, Greg and Deadra, had asked for a low-key homecoming, partly to avoid exhausting Jessica. (There are plans for a bash once she is more fully recovered, perhaps next spring.) The family has also emphasized repeatedly how humbled they are to be welcoming their daughter home when so many have seen sons and daughters killed in Iraq, or still await their return.
Eleven soldiers from Lynch's convoy, including her best friend, Spc. Lori Piestewa, died when their Humvee crashed after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. U.S. special operations forces rescued Lynch from a Nasiriyah hospital April 1. Five other soldiers from her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, who were captured and held separately from Lynch were freed April 13.
"I'm proud to be a soldier in the Army. I'm proud to have served with the 507th," Lynch said. "I'm happy that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive. It hurts that some of my company didn't."
A low-key celebration, however, wasn't exactly what residents had in mind. In Elizabeth, flags hung from telephone poles, yellow ribbons from mailboxes, handmade "Welcome Home" signs from trees. Hundreds of people wore Jessi T-shirts and Jessi pins.
The state even paved state Route 14 for the motorcade, in which Jessica and her brother Greg rode in a red Mustang convertible past flag-waving well-wishers to their home, up a long hollow on Mayberry Run Road.
There, Lynch was greeted by a house that bore scant resemblance to the one she left - thanks to dozens of volunteers who decided it needed remodeling and took on the project on weekends and days off.
When it became clear that Lynch faced an extended rehabilitation, the volunteers added a handicap-accessible first-floor bedroom and bathroom to the family's two-bedroom, one bathroom home.
But so many people donated supplies that they decided to go all the way - ending up with a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a new roof, stairs, carpet, donated furniture and green-and-off-white exterior.
Support has come from outsiders as well: roughly 10,000 letters and so many gifts from all over the world that they fill an 8-by-8-foot vacant jail cell.
A hand-carved wooden cane and handmade afghans and quilts are among the gifts that have been catalogued.
In the accompanying notes, most of the donors express appreciation for Lynch's sacrifice.
"Mostly they're saying thank you for risking your life to protect the United States," said Nick Busch, a courthouse intern. "They put a lot of love into making those gifts."