February 13, 2012 12:00 PM

Jessica Buchanan isn’t a stranger to peril on the job. Working in Africa for the last five years, she’s grown accustomed to the sound of gunshots piercing the night air. “She once said, ‘You just get under the table!'” says her uncle Dave Buchanan. “She’s pretty tough.”

And thankfully so, given all she’s been through. On Jan. 24, three months after they were abducted by pirates in Galkayo, central Somalia, Jessica, 32, and her Danish Refugee Council colleague Poul Thisted, 60, were rescued in a dramatic nighttime raid by the Navy SEALs’ elite Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden last May. Stirred by concerns over Jessica’s ongoing kidney condition, on Jan. 23 Obama green-lit the SEALs, who parachuted into the area around 2 a.m. local time the next night. After his State of the Union address, the President stunned Jessica’s father, John, 60, a widower and furniture craftsman from Bedford, Va., with a personal phone call from the Capitol. “I’m thinking, ‘This could be some kind of cruel joke,'” Buchanan later said of the call. “We were ecstatic,” adds his older brother Peter. “It’s what we prayed for.”

On Jan. 30, after meeting her husband, Swedish aid worker Erik Landemalm, in Italy, Jessica boarded a flight to Pennsylvania to finally reunite with her father and two younger siblings Amy, 29, and Stephen, 22. “Today’s the big day,” John told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “I can’t really express it in words what it’s going to be like to see her.” Those who know Jessica don’t expect her to stay away from the country she’s grown to love. “She’s committed to Africa,” says her best friend Christine Scolforo. “This won’t change her.” But for now, just knowing she’s safe “is beyond words,” adds Scolforo. “We’ll be forever grateful.”

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