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Hero's Welcome

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THE EMBRACE LINGERED FOR SEVERAL minutes, punctuated by unembarrassed sobs of joy. On the sunbaked tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington on June 11, Scott O’Grady clung tight to his sister, Stacy—she in her billowing flowered dress, he in his Air Force captain’s uniform covering the silver cross, embossed with the dove of peace, that she had given him as a talisman. The two are unusually close, even for brother and sister. Stacy was born the day Scott turned 3. “I was told he didn’t appreciate that too much at the time, my taking the limelight away from him,” she says. “He would throw balls at my head while I was in the crib.”

Now the limelight engulfing them both was the hot glare of the public eye as hundreds of dignitaries, ordinary citizens, relatives and reporters watched their embrace. Just moments before, as flags and banners waved and a brass band played, Captain O’Grady, 29, had emerged from a C-20 military plane. In a matter of hours his fantastic hide-and-seek tale had entered American folklore: how his F-16 was bisected by a Serb missile four miles above Bosnia, how he ejected and spent nearly a week hiding in the woods and pastureland, dining on ants, leaves, grass and rainwater—and how he prayed, lying motionless for hours as rifle-toting soldiers walked as close as a yard from him. And then the Hollywood finale: a spectacular dawn rescue on June 8 by a team of 41 fresh-faced Marines whose average age is 19.

Pale and wan, having lost 10 pounds off his wiry 5’9″ frame, O’Grady addressed the crowd through a crackling microphone. A spiritual man, the pilot said he would not have survived “if it wasn’t for God and the miracle that he blessed me with.” In fact, in the days to come O’Grady would consistently play down his own bravery and credit others for his miraculous rescue—the mark, some would say, of a true hero.

“All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit, trying to survive,” O’Grady insisted. His family, for all their obvious pride, seemed to agree. “I think he just acted from instinct,” says his father, William O’Grady, 56, a radiologist from Alexandria, Va., who served two years in the Navy. “Whether that is pure heroism—who knows?” Adds Stacy, 26, an eighth-grade language teacher who lives in Skokie, Ill., near Chicago: “How can you forget about the military men who risked their lives to save my brother? They are definitely heroes.”

The day after O’Grady’s airport arrival, he and 16 family members and friends went to the White House, where they lunched on macadamia-crusted lamb chops and shiitake mushrooms. (The flier, who had had his fill of greens during his slog in the Bosnian brush, did have one quibble with the menu: “Excuse me, Mr. President,” he said, “if I don’t eat my salad.”)

Just days earlier, while O’Grady had waited, cold and alone, in the forest, his family was enduring an agonizing ordeal of its own. For his father, the news that his son had been shot down, delivered by an Air Force chaplain, was shattering. “I cried—I just became unglued,” says the elder O’Grady. “I thought Scott was dead.” The airman’s 52-year-old mother, Mary Lou Scardapane—she and Dr. O’Grady divorced in 1988, and she has since remarried—waited anxiously in her Seattle home. The pilot’s sister and brother, Paul, 25, a publishing firm salesman from Chapel Hill, N.C., converged on their father’s house. “I was scared because I couldn’t get his image out of my head,” says Paul. “I know it sounds hokey, but I thought he was trying to reach me from heaven.” At one point, Stacy dealt with her anxiety by curling up in bed with one of her brother’s old, tattered teddy bears. “I was in an emotional fog,” she admits. “Nothing made sense anymore except having something of Scott’s to hold.”

She may well have been thinking back to their childhood, when her slight, scrappy brother was her best friend and protector. Once, when she was 6, Stacy remembers, a classmate on a school bus yanked her jacket hood, inadvertently choking her with the zipper. Immediately, Scott leaped from his seat “and shook the guy, saying something like he should never touch me again. And sure enough, he never did.”

Their closeness served them well, because when the children were young, the family moved several times—from Brooklyn, where Scott was born, to Long Beach, Calif., back to Ridgewood, N.J., and then to Spokane, Wash., where they settled for 14 years. There Scott—though he has described himself back then as “a 125-pound weakling”—played soccer and football for Lewis and Clark High School.

More significant, though, was O’Grady’s fascination with flight, instilled by his parents, both avid recreational pilots. Before leaving for college, he had earned his own civilian pilot’s license. Though his SAT scores proved too low for the Air Force Academy, he eventually entered the ROTC program at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. He joined the Air Force in 1989 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. “Quite simply, Scott really wanted to fly fighter jets,” says Stacy.

His wish came true in late 1991, when he was stationed in Korea, flying the F-16. Last year, he joined the 555th Fighter Squadron in Aviano, Italy. It was from there, on June 2, that he took off on one of the 69,000 sorties that have been part of the U.N. effort to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Bosnia. Six days later he was dripping wet, suffering from hypothermia and clutching a 9 mm. pistol as he burst from the pines toward a waiting Marine chopper, then collapsed tearfully into the arms of Col. Martin Berndt, leader of the rescue team. Back in Alexandria, meanwhile, a call came from the Aviano base verifying that O’Grady’s radio signals had been picked up by a U.S. jet over Bosnia.

“A wave of relief just hit me, and I grabbed my father and held him, and then I started to go a little wild with joy,” says Stacy. “I was hugging everyone, screaming.” Within the next hour, she says, two more calls came: the first from Lt. Gen. Michael Ryan, in Naples, Italy, saying Scott was safe and on his way home, and the second from President Clinton, who told the O’Gradys he was “very proud” of Scott.

The publicity onslaught was immediate. “I was amazed—the phone still hasn’t stopped ringing,” says Paul O’Grady. “I mean, Ted Koppel was in our living room. Right here.” His brother, who had to interrupt his homecoming briefly last week to be treated at a local hospital for exposure, has been deluged with all sorts of gifts and enticements: jelly beans from former President Reagan, marriage proposals, product endorsements, book and movie deals. “When we were at the White House,” Paul says, “Dad was asking Al Gore if he could recommend some agents.” Though grateful for the outpouring of attention, Dr. O’Grady hasn’t lost his sense of what really matters. “Everyone has been so gracious,” he says, “so very happy that Scott is Scott and that he’s alive.”