WASHINGTON -- Capt. Scott F. O'Grady subsisted on a diet of insects, grass and water for six days as he avoided Serbian patrols in Bosnia last week. But at the White House yesterday, the fare was decidedly better -- and the hospitality a whole lot warmer.
"Basher 52, it's good to have you home," President Clinton said, using the pilot's code name and saluting him smartly. Asked how it felt to be home, the 29-year-old Air Force captain gave a one-word reply: "Unbelievable."
Captain O'Grady and his family were treated to a lunch of vegetable gazpacho, lump crab meat salad, macadamia-crusted lamb chops with layered potatoes and mushrooms, spring greens and asparagus, followed by cherry sherbet and fresh fruits.
Even in the best of times, though, the pilot is used to military food, and may have been a bit overwhelmed. "Mr. President, you'll excuse me if I don't eat the salad," he quipped.
Before the lunch, Captain O'Grady sat in the Oval Office in the chair usually reserved for Vice President Al Gore -- Mr. Gore sat on the couch -- where he told the president how he had hidden in the woods as armed Serbian patrols passed within four or five feet.
Later yesterday, he journeyed with the president to the Pentagon, where they were joined by Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for a tribute not just to the pilot, but to those who rescued him.
Captain O'Grady's heady day in Washington came five days after his rescue in Bosnia, where his F-16 jet was downed by a Serb-fired SAM-6 missile while on routine patrol to enforce the United Nations' no-fly zone in the Balkans.
Recapping the effort that went into Captain O'Grady's rescue after he was located, General Shalikashvili said: "Two hours and five minutes later, [Marine] Col. Marty Berndt reached out his hand and pulled Scott aboard the rescue helicopter."
"The professionalism, the courage, the inner strength of Captain O'Grady, and every member of the team that brought him home, was a vivid reminder -- if reminders we need -- that our greatest strength and the source of our deepest pride are our men and women in uniform," the general said.
Mr. Perry praised the training and technology that went into the rescue, the cool-headedness of Captain O'Grady -- and the efficiency of the U.S. Marines.
Added President Clinton: "Last week those of you who brought life to that training and saved one brave man's life said more about what we stand for as a country, what our values are and what our commitments are than any words the rest of us could ever utter."
For his part, Captain O'Grady first thanked God for his deliverance, as he has in all of his public appearances. And when invited by the president to speak his heart and mind "to the people who gave him back his freedom," the captain made this statement:
"If you'll allow me the honor to accept all of this fanfare in the honor of those men and women who deserved it more and didn't get it serving their country -- not just in the United States but also in NATO and the United Nations peace corps -- to those men and women who suffered a lot more than I went through, those who were POWs, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice both in wartime and peacetime for their countries, if you could do that for me, then I'll accept all this."
The audience in uniform applauded warmly, cheered by the appearance of such a humble young man, and by words spoken by Mr. Perry, who drew a parallel between Captain O'Grady's rescue and a famous letter written by William T. Sherman, the Civil War Union general, to his superior, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
It is a letter that sums up the faith those in the field must have for those who sent them there. "I knew wherever I was, that you thought of me," Sherman wrote, "and if I got in a tight place, you would come."