Reluctant hero gets hero's welcome at White House


WASHINGTON -- U.S. Air Force pilot Capt. Scott O'Grady, still insisting he did nothing heroic, received a hero's welcome at the White House yesterday -- but couldn't quite eat everything on the menu.

Captain O'Grady, who survived by eating ants and grass for six days after his F-16 fighter was shot down over Bosnia-Herzegovina, was President Clinton's guest of honor at an elegant lunch of lamb chops with shiitake mushrooms.

But when waiters served a side dish of fresh spring greens, Capt. O'Grady looked glumly at his plate. "Mr. President, you'll understand if I don't eat my salad," he said, according to an official who was present.

That was the only visible sign of Captain O'Grady's ordeal, though. After a good night's sleep at his father's house in nearby Alexandria, Va., the 29-year-old captain looked fit, rested and cheerful in his blue service dress uniform.

He brought 14 relatives and friends to the White House to meet the president, including his father and mother, his mother's second husband, his sister and brother and both maternal grandparents.

In a half-hour meeting in the Oval Office, Captain O'Grady recounted the story of his survival to Mr. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and others -- "a hair-raising tale," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Captain O'Grady said Bosnian Serb search parties came within a few feet of his hiding place almost every day of his six days in hiding, one official said. "They were as close to me as the vice president is now," Captain O'Grady said, pointing at Mr. Gore, who sat on a couch no more than 10 feet away.

At the White House, Captain O'Grady was the object of admiring attention from dozens of presidential staffers, who clustered at windows to applaud and catch a glimpse. After lunch, at an official "welcome home" ceremony at the Pentagon, he was surrounded by a flock of beaming generals, all eager to pump the young captain's hand.

"He gave us something more precious than we can ever give him: a reminder of what is very best about our country," Mr. Clinton said.

As before, Captain O'Grady said he did not deserve all the attention.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry paid tribute to the pilot's rescuers -- and the senior officers who directed them.

"It was a gutsy decision," Mr. Perry noted. "It turned out to be the right decision. And it was in the best military tradition, exemplified in a famous letter" that American Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman wrote: " 'I knew wherever I was, that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place, you would come,' " Mr. Perry said.

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