ELIZABETH, W.Va. – Pfc. Jessica Lynch (search), 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.
"We're here to see history," said Mary Elder, 52, who was one of 2,000 people who watched Lynch's motorcade slip through Elizabeth. Another supporter, Roszetta Martin, screamed, "Welcome home!" as Lynch passed by.
Lynch, a 20-year-old Army supply clerk with the Fort Bliss, Texas-based 507th Maintenance Company (search), arrived in West Virginia on Tuesday aboard a Black Hawk helicopter and, after speaking to reporters in Elizabeth, rode a red convertible to her family home in Palestine.
"It's great to be home," the former POW said softly in her first public appearance. "I'd like to say thank you to everyone who helped and prayed for my return."
Lynch received a standing ovation as she entered the media tent in a wheelchair. She wore a beret and a crisp Army dress uniform adorned with medals awarded Monday, including the Bronze Star (search) and the Purple Heart (search).
"I'm proud to be a soldier in the Army. I'm proud to have served with the 507th. I'm happy that some soldiers I served with made it home alive. It hurts that some of my company didn't," Lynch said.
She read a statement thanking American and Iraqi doctors who treated her and mourned Lori Piestewa (search), a 23-year-old American who died in the same March 23 attack in which Lynch was injured.
"She was my best friend," Lynch said. "She fought beside me and it was an honor to have served with her. Lori will always remain in my heart."
Lynch beamed as she turned to Sgt. Ruben Contreras, whom family members identified as her boyfriend. Lynch was wearing a promise ring given to her by Contreras.
"Ruben, you never let me give up," she said. "You're my inspiration and I love you."
Lynch said that for a long time, she did not realize that her ordeal had captured the hearts of millions around the globe. "I read thousands of letters, many of them from children, who offered messages of hope and faith," she said.
Lynch's convoy was ambushed near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in an attack that killed 11 soldiers. U.S. forces rescued Lynch at a Nasiriyah hospital April 1, while five other captured 507th soldiers, held apart from Lynch, were rescued April 13.
The home Lynch returned to was far different from the two-bedroom house where she grew up. Volunteers have been busy making the family home handicapped accessible to accommodate her injuries, nearly doubling its size.
She was greeted by a crowd on the front porch, and she was hugged by many as she was wheeled into her home, and out of public view again. She still faces months of rehabilitation from multiple broken bones and other injuries.
"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."
Regina Ray, of Elizabeth, owner of Creative Gifts and Floral, said she hopes Lynch can cope with all the attention: "You think you are coming home to normal, and this town is not normal," she said.