The homecoming: Private Jessica's public turn out for a woman they regard as a hero

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The journey home for Private Jessica Lynch began, in reality, several months ago.

Then - as was the case yesterday - she was taken from a hospital bed and flown by a Black Hawk helicopter to a safe haven full of friendly faces.

Then, as yesterday, she would have struggled to believe her eyes. Shortly after lunch yesterday Pte Lynch, a 20-year-old army supply clerk whose capture and subsequent rescue in Iraq became one of the most celebrated episodes of the war, arrived back in her home town of Palestine, West Virginia. Whether or not she deserved to be called a hero - on Monday, she was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medals - it was a hero's welcome she received from the people who saw her grow up.

A huge roar went up from the crowds who had lined the streets of the community where she lived as the helicopter bringing her from Washington performed a "fly by" and then finally touched down.

Everywhere one looked in the tiny town, and in the not-much-bigger neighbouring town of Elizabeth where she went to school, there were people with banners and placards gathered to welcome the girl-next-door who joined the army to get an education and ended up becoming a national celebrity. "Hi" said Pte Lynch sitting in a wheelchair. "Thank you for being here. It is great to be home".

In uniform, but heavily made up and looking frail, she thanked her medical teams in Washington and in Germany. She also thanked the "several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life".

Earlier, she had left the Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington thanking staff there and the public for their cards and letters. She said: "These really raised my spirits and kept me going." Pte Lynch had been in the army hospital since 12 April,when she was rescued from hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in a night-time operation by US forces.

She had lain in the city's Saddam Hospital for at least eight days after her unit, the 507th Maintenance Corps, was ambushed by Iraqi fighters and militia.

When the Delta Force troops landed in Black Hawk helicopters and stormed into the hospital at around 1am on 1 April, one of them reportedly said to her: "Jessica Lynch, we're United States soldiers and we're here to protect you and take you home."

Pte Lynch, still weak from her injuries, replied: "I'm an American soldier, too."

Her rescue was quickly seized on by the Pentagon, who presented it to the world as a dramatic and morale-boosting operation by US forces who would not forsake "a fallen comrade".

Furthermore, they told reporters that Pte Lynch had tried to fight off her ambushers, shooting and killing many of them until she ran out of ammunition. Her captors had treated her badly, they said, and the pretty girl from West Virginia had suffered gun-shot and stab wounds.

The reality was quite different. A report issued earlier this month by the Pentagon revealed Pte Lynch had not been shot or stabbed and that her weapon had jammed. She suffered her injuries after the Humvee in which she was travelling crashed into a truck.

Furthermore, inquiries by The Independent, whose correspondent spoke to the Iraqi doctors who cared for her, suggested the Pte Lynch had been well-treated and was put in the cleanest ward in the hospital. In addition, what quickly became apparent was that the special forces rescue was not quite what it appeared.

When the Delta Force troops arrived at the hospital they were immediately led to Pte Lynch and did not need to fire a shot. Of course, among the deep hills and wooded valleys of the Ohio valley, none of this mattered to the people who had been waiting during those dark days for news of Pte Lynch, tying yellow ribbons to trees and fences and spending hours in prayer. Why should they be concerned with a controversy about whether the Pentagon had been giving a slanted picture? That was just politics, they said. Pte Lynch was one of them.

Pte Lynch's grandmother Wyonema said yesterday: "We are excited just to see her, just to be able to give her a hug.

"To Jessie, home is in the hills. She has been wanting to get here."

Quite how fully Pte Lynch has recovered from her ordeal is not entirely clear. Reports say that she can walk a hundred or so yards with the help of a walking frame but that she still has trouble standing up unaided.

Her cousin Dan Little, a member of the Parkersburg National Guard, which was there to welcome her, said: "She's a strong, disciplined young lady.

"Her injuries are long healing, and that can be hard if you dwell on it. But she has not allowed that to happen."

The story of her recovery and indeed, that of her capture and rescue, has become the focus of an intense bidding war among rival media outfits.

Last month it was revealed that the CBS network had been so desperate to obtain an exclusive interview with Pte Lynch that it has offered her many enticements linked to other parts of its parent company, including a book deal, a movie contract, an opportunity to co-host an hour-long MTV video show and a concert in her home town featuring either Ja Rule or Ashanti.

Pte Lynch last night made her first brief public comments to the media, during a press conference that was closed to local people - something that upset some residents.

Tammy Simms, from Elizabeth, whose daughter graduated from Wirt Country High School with Pte Lynch, said: "It's very disappointing but we hope eventually she will come out and do something for the community. I just want to see her face. I can't wait to see her face."

There has been some disagreement within the community as to whether Pte Lynch should have received the attention she has, and whether others who fought in Iraq have been ignored as a result.

Some of it appears to be jealously, while some of it appears to be genuine concern from a community that is used to many of its young people entering the armed services as a way to escape the lack of opportunities available in this down-at-heel part of the state.

But yesterday, most people just seemed glad that she was home. Regina Ray, the owner of a gift shop in Elizabeth, said: "I just hope she can cope with everything that's going on around here. You think you are coming home to normal, and this town is not normal."

Greg and Sheila Hodak, of North Carolina, had made a detour to Pte Lynch's home on their way to Pennsylvania. "We just felt drawn to come by," said Mrs Hodak. "I would love to get a glimpse of her. Everybody felt like she was their adopted child."