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20 minute read
Kevin Fedarko and Mark Thompson

So perfectly was the mission executed that it amazed even the men responsible. At 2:08 a.m. Central European time, on June 8, Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady was sitting, as he had for six days, cold, hungry, hunted and alone in the hills of a strange country. Then he made contact with a U.S. plane. By 7:30 he was onboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge, a missing soldier now safely back among his comrades. All the tremendous resources available to the U.S. military-from spy satellites to the Marines-had been marshaled for the purpose of rescuing O’Grady, and they had been deployed with flawless coordination.

No one was hurt; nothing went wrong. O’Grady and the men who saved him are genuine heroes. This vest-pocket Gulf War was in every respect the exact opposite of the conflict that gave rise to it. And for one chimerical moment, the rescue pierced the frustrations of the Bosnian conflict-where clear-cut successes, decisive actions, brilliant displays of military heroism have all been in short supply. In Bosnia, on most days, there is only murk, brutality and death.

“I prayed to God and asked him for a lot of things, and he delivered throughout the entire time,” O’Grady told TIME in an interview after he had returned to the Aviano Air Base in Italy. “When I prayed for rain, he gave me rain. One time I prayed, Lord, let me at least have someone know I’m alive and maybe come rescue me. And guess what? That night T.O. [fellow F-16 pilot Thomas O. Hanford] came up on the radio.” At that moment, O’Grady knew his ordeal was coming to an end.

It had begun six days before, when his F-16 was targeted by an SA-6 surface-to-air missile fired from a Bosnian-Serb stronghold just south of Bihac. Together with Captain Bob Wright, 33, who was flying another F-16 on his wing, O’Grady was conducting one of the 69,000 sorties that have been flown during Operation Deny Flight to enforce a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone over northern Bosnia.

The location of the missile was the result of a shift in defenses recently undertaken by the Bosnian Serbs that had escaped the notice of NATO intelligence. Because it was launched from directly below, the SA-6 was able to hurtle up on the “blind spot” in the underbelly of the F-16’s defensive pod, blasting into O’Grady’s aircraft with barely 20 seconds’ warning and cutting it in half. “We think this was the first time the Serbs fired an SA-6,” said an Air Force official. “They waited until just the right moment, and they ambushed us.”

A pilot’s worst nightmare, it is said, is not getting shot out of the sky but seeing one’s wingman getting shot out of the sky. “When you lose your wingman, part of you goes with him,” said Wright, recalling the moment he saw O’Grady’s plane cut to pieces by the sam. “It was pretty much a fireball, but out of the fireball, I could see the cockpit.” Wright had to suppress his horror in order to concentrate on marking O’Grady’s position. The plane plunged into the clouds so swiftly, however, that Wright could not tell if O’Grady had managed to safely eject.

Hours later, O’Grady’s father, William, a radiologist in Alexandria, Virginia, was handed a typewritten sheet from Air Force chaplain Steven Rich saying that his son was in Bosnia, that he had been shot down, that no one saw him eject and that they had received no signal from him. “That was the hard part,” recalled the elder O’Grady. “We never really knew if he was alive.”

But miraculously, he was. As his F-16 came apart, O’Grady reached for the ejection lanyard between his knees — “this beautiful gold handle” he would call it at a press conference on Saturday — and exploded through the disintegrating cockpit into the skies 26,000 ft. above the Bosnian forests. The ejection seat rocketed O’Grady into the air, its charge searing parts of his neck and face. After punching out of his plane, he opened his parachute manually instead of waiting for it to be released. It was afternoon and visibility from below was all too good. “I was in that parachute for an extremely long time,” he said. “Everybody on the ground could see me.” His trajectory took him over a main highway, and as he fell, crowds of Bosnian Serbs watched his progress. He recalls floating down, thinking, “They were just sitting there waiting for me.”

As he landed in a grassy clearing, O’Grady wasted no time. In seconds, he had shed his parachute and was dashing toward a small clump of bushes. There he quickly dug his face into the dirt and covered his ears with his green gloves so that no bare skin would be visible. Barely in time. Within four minutes, Serbs had swarmed over the area in a furious effort to find him.

Meanwhile, as the Pentagon started reacting, planners were not holding out much hope. “We thought he was dead,” admits one Air Force officer. nato strategists initially debated whether to send a Special Forces team to the wreckage site. The idea was swiftly scrapped when it became apparent that O’Grady’s plane had crashed in the forests between Banja Luka and Bihac, an area heavily populated with Bosnian Serbs.

O’Grady was learning that too, as he lay concealed at the outset of what would turn into a harrowing six-day game of hide-and-seek. When the Serbs’ first search missed him, sometimes passing as close as 3 to 5 ft. from him, O’Grady hugged the earth and remained frozen. Staying concealed when it was light, O’Grady sought safer cover each night with agonizing slowness. In all, he ranged no more than two miles from the spot where he had landed.

“For the most part, my face was in the dirt, and I was just praying they wouldn’t see me or hear me,” he recalled. At times, his Serb pursuers approached, beating the ground with their rifles in an effort to flush him out. On one occasion, he lay motionless as a cow browsed on blades of grass between his legs. Eventually he nicknamed two cows that were especially fond of his hiding spot “Leroy” and “Alfred”; the old man who herded them he called “Tinkerbell” because of the cowbell he carried. At another point, O’Grady was awakened by the roar of an artillery piece going off right next to him. He says, “It scared the living daylights out of me.”

Spring has come to Bosnia, and irises, primrose and lilacs pattern the mountainsides, but the temperature still dips below freezing at night, and heavy rains are frequent. The terrain is excellent for hiding, however. O’Grady had crashed in a cave-pocked, densely forested region used during World War II for that purpose by partisans evading the Nazis. The downed flyer had soon consumed the eight 4-oz. packs of water in his emergency kit. But he was able to catch rain in Ziploc plastic bags and at one point tried to squeeze water out of his wet woolen socks, without much luck. He found sustenance by eating leaves, grass and ants-but not too many of the latter. “They’re hard to catch,” he reported afterward. “He maintained his cool,” said Admiral Leighton Smith, nato’s southern commander. “He’s very smart, he’s very determined and very gutsy to have evaded for as long as he did using the equipment that he had.”

The 29-lb. survival kit strapped under the seat of O’Grady’s F-16 contained a first-aid kit, a few flares, some radio batteries and a 9-mm pistol, among other items. In his vest, O’Grady also had an “evasion chart” — a waterproof map with pointers on how to survive in northwestern Bosnia, including cues for edible plants such as dandelion, licorice root and nettle. His most important asset was a 28-oz. PRC-112, a survival radio, barely larger than a Walkman, that can operate for as long as seven hours on a single battery and can broadcast a locating beep, Morse code or voice.

O’Grady’s efforts to establish contact using the PRC were thwarted at first by bad weather, which kept allied planes away for several days. Undaunted, he kept on the move, searching as best he could in the dark for a locale with three critical attributes: a clear high point to broadcast from, a place suitable for a large helicopter to land, but one not too vulnerable to enemy fire.

During that time, allied military planes conducting ceaseless sorties in the Balkans had been picking up beeper snippets that they thought could be coming from the pilot-an extremely sensitive piece of information that was inadvertently revealed by General Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force Chief of Staff, when the general told reporters at a promotion ceremony last Monday that monitors had detected “intermittent” transmissions. “I was dumbfounded he said that,” one enraged nato official later declared. “I mean, why not just announce to the bad guys, ‘We think he’s alive and kicking, and we hope we find him before you do’?”

Not until Tuesday evening, nearly five days after the shoot-down, did NATO planes flying over the region finally confirm that they were getting more extensive transmissions from what was thought to be O’Grady’s radio beacon. It was still not possible to know whether the signal was O’Grady’s or was just a Serb trick to lure aircraft in close, but now the Pentagon threw a massive intelligence net over the region. CIA spy satellites initiated a continuous sweep of northern Bosnia, hoping to photograph O’Grady on the ground. Air Force reconnaissance craft and signal intercept planes began swarming over the area. Other planes with special infrared scanners, which could detect the warmth of a body moving on the ground, patrolled the mountains as well.

As the search continued through the night, the information was passed back to Washington where, six hours behind Central European Time, Clinton was receiving an evening briefing from National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. Clinton told Lake to keep him informed, but by the next morning the searchers still had not locked on to the lost pilot. “You know that matter we discussed last night?” said Lake at 9:30 a.m. “There’s nothing more on that, and it looks uncertain.” The President sighed and shook his head in frustration.

It would not be until early Thursday morning that Captain Thomas Hanford, an F-16 pilot from O’Grady’s fighter wing making one of the repeated search sorties, received the first direct radio signal from the downed pilot. “Basher-52 reads you,” said O’Grady, using the “call sign” that signifies a particular plane and its pilot. “I’m alive; help.” Hanford subsequently asked him to identify the name of the squadron in which he had served in Korea — a question designed to ensure that O’Grady’s message was not, in fact, a Serb trick. When he replied correctly, Hanford notified his superiors that he had made contact with O’Grady. Then he peeled away over the Adriatic to refuel. And for a few short moments, he let his emotions get the better of him. “It’s hard to fly an airplane,” he said later, “when you have tears rolling down your face.”

The information was relayed to an intelligence-gathering AWACS circling high above, and then to Admiral Smith in London. He contacted Colonel Martin Berndt, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the Kearsarge, a helicopter carrier sailing in the Adriatic. “What do you think?” asked the admiral. “I think we can get him,” replied Berndt. Smith immediately gave the go-ahead, and Berndt roused 51 Marines-including 10 helicopter crewmembers-sleeping below decks; it was shortly after 3 a.m. At about the same time, Lake approached the President back in Washington, where it was around 9:30 p.m. “It looks real tonight,” he said. “It looks like it’s a go.”

The rescue team would have preferred going in under cover of darkness, but by the time Smith’s order came through, streaks of morning light were already appearing above the Dalmatian coast. At sunrise Berndt and his Marines, their faces covered with camouflage paint, had boarded a pair of enormous CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters-16-ton, seven-blade monsters. “We were so focused on the mission, I don’t think anybody had any time to be nervous,” recalls Berndt. “We were all excited that our young captain was alive and well.”

Escorting the Stallions were two Marine AH-1W SuperCobra helicopter gunships, bristling with missiles, cannon and machine guns, and a pair of single-pilot Marine AV-8B Harrier jump jets. These six aircraft were backed up by identical sets of replacement helicopters and jump jets-none was needed-as well as two Navy EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes, two Marine F/A-18D Hornets to provide air cover, and a pair of tank-killing Air Force A-10 Warthogs. The entire aerial armada of roughly 40 planes was choreographed from above by a nato awacs radar plane. “We had the whole shooting match up there,” said Smith.

After leaving the ship, the helicopters had to circle over the Adriatic for 45 minutes waiting for the rest of the rescue package to arrive from other carriers and Italian bases. “That was probably good,” Berndt later said. “It took the edge off us, and it got everybody focused and thinking perhaps a little bit straighter.” Then came the “push”-authorization from the awacs to enter Balkan airspace-and the mission was under way. Within minutes the aircraft had reached Bosnian Serb territory. At one point, Admiral William A. Owens, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Lake and said, “Our feet are dry,” meaning they were flying over land. The sun was winking through the rugged, fog-draped Balkan terrain as the CH-53s spent the next 50 minutes flitting 200 ft. over pine forests.

At 6:35 a.m., they approached the area where O’Grady’s signal beacon had been traced. The pilots saw bright yellow smoke coming from trees near a rocky pasture; O’Grady had set off a flare. The first Super Stallion, commanded by Major William Tarbutton, touched down, trying to avoid crude pine fence posts with barbed wire strung between them. Some 20 Marines scrambled out to set up a security perimeter.

The second helicopter, Berndt’s, inadvertently landed on part of the fence, forcing the pilot to pick up again and move a few feet before setting down. In the front seat, sitting between the two pilots, Berndt peered through the cockpit and saw, to his astonishment, a young man running toward him with a pistol. The man was 50 or 60 yards away, coming up a little rise between some pine trees. The fog was fairly dense, and at first Berndt was not sure who it was. “But,” he recalls, “I quickly figured it had to be him.”

The helicopter’s side door had been open for all of three seconds when O’Grady tumbled across its threshold. He relinquished his 9-mm Beretta pistol to the crew and pulled on Berndt’s Gore-Tex parka and a crash helmet. “I’ll never forget the look on his face as he was running toward our aircraft,” said Berndt. “He had this pistol in his right hand — looking like he had been in the field trying to survive for six days, and knowing we were there to pull him out.” Nobody, Berndt added somewhat incredulously, “even got off our helicopter.”

The Marines poised to leave by the rear ramp were called back to their seats. Those who had formed the protective perimeter reboarded the other helicopter, and after a quick head count, the Super Stallions took off. They had been on the ground no more than seven minutes.

Their VIP passenger was strapped into a seat by Angel Castro Jr., a 45-year-old sergeant major who has spent more than half his life in the Marines. “I sat him down,” Castro recalled in a thick Bronx accent, “and he said ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’ — he just kept on saying that.” O’Grady was shivering, dehydrated and soaking wet. After he drank almost an entire canteen of water, Castro asked him if he wanted something to eat. He nodded, and an MRE — a meal, ready-to-eat-was passed forward. O’Grady took three or four bites of the chicken stew and then said he couldn’t eat any more. His uncontrollable shivering started up again, and someone wrapped a thermal blanket around his shoulders. “I was just so relieved,” said Castro. “My heart was still pumping so hard — we finally had him.”

Castro gave him a pair of gloves and ordered two young Marines to flank him with their bodies in order to keep him as warm as possible and shield him from the 45-degree wind whipping through the portals through which the helicopter’s machine guns protruded. One of those Marines was Paul Bruce of Lebanon, Maine, a 20-year-old lance corporal who could see that the young pilot was in emotional tatters. “When he first got on the helo, he was sobbing and weeping,” said Bruce. “It was more than just a tear or two. His chest was heaving — he was so grateful and happy to be rescued.”

At 12:49 a.m., just as O’Grady was being plucked from the ground in Bosnia, Lake called the President with a two-word message: “Got ‘im.” Replied Clinton: “Great! It sounds like this is one amazing kid.”

He is a pretty amazing kid. Born in Brooklyn, New York, O’Grady grew up in Spokane, Washington, with his younger brother and sister and his parents, who divorced in 1990. He went to Lewis and Clark High School, where he played soccer and was the kicker for the football team. “When he was little he wanted to be a ninja, to get into martial arts,” says Paul O’Grady, 25.

O’Grady’s father headed a surgical team on a ship off North Vietnam in 1972. He used to take Scott with him in his small Cessna when the boy was 5 and 6 years old. “He always wanted to go into the Air Force,” the senior O’Grady recalled. “He always wanted to be there, to fly F-16s and see action.”

That dream seemed in jeopardy after O’Grady finished high school and failed to gain admission to the Air Force Academy. Determined to fly fighter jets, he set out to nail down every civilian flight certification he could, a strategy that he hoped would enable him to enter the Air Force a notch above the rest. “He was one of the best I’ve ever had,” says Mark Wellsandt, who helped give O’Grady his primary flight training at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane and eventually became good friends with the young pilot. “You’d demonstrate a maneuver to him one time, and he was able to just pick it up and go from there. “

Wellsandt also taught the survival course at Fairchild that O’Grady took and that gave him the training he used with such focus and discipline during his six days in the woods. “I heard he ate bugs to survive, and that’s taught in the school,” says Wellsandt. “Knowing Scott as long as I have, I’m sure he was thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve got other things I want to do, and if I want to do them, then I’ve got to get with the program.'”

O’Grady’s family kept an anxious vigil all week. “When you’re not in control of a situation that involves a person you love with all your heart, you go crazy,” said Stacey, who was born on Scott’s third birthday in 1968. That was an audacious usurpation of the limelight for which her older brother, she says, never quite forgave her and that, until now, he has been unable to undo. “You grasp for hope and a prayer.” Plus one other thing. During the final two nights of O’Grady’s ordeal, Stacey slept with her brother’s old, well-used teddy bear. She later explained, “You cling to whatever you can.”

At the same time as O’Grady was being helicoptered off the ground, his father was awakened by a telephone call. It was Colonel Chuck Wald, head of O’Grady’s squadron in Aviano, calling to say they had made radio contact with O’Grady. “That was the first we knew he was alive and well.” (O’Grady’s mother, living in Spokane, his hometown, received a similar call within minutes.) The moment he heard the news, the elder O’Grady ran shouting into the bedrooms of his other two children. “I woke up Paul and Stacey, and we all just started jumping around,” he said.

The euphoria was not limited to the O’Grady household. In the White House, Lake decided it was time to allow himself a moment of mild celebration. “Mr. President,” he declared, “with or without your permission, I’m going to smoke a cigar.” Clinton was one step ahead of his Security Adviser. “Well, come on over,” he replied, “I’m having one too.” Sidestepping the First Lady’s ban on White House smoking, the two men walked out onto the second-floor Truman Balcony, gazed in the direction of the Washington Monument and lit up a pair of stogies.

The savoring of the moment was fitting but, in retrospect, somewhat premature. During the incoming flight the helicopters had traveled at about 120 m.p.h.; they roared back to the Kearsarge at 175 m.p.h., skimming the treetops in hopes of avoiding Serbian gunners and missileers below. The 87-mile flight was smooth for its first third, when the helicopters entered a shallow valley in the shape of a rice bowl. But suddenly three small, shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles ripped past, followed by “small gunfire hitting the bird,” as Corporal Michael Pevear, the other Marine sitting beside O’Grady, put it.

Everyone jumped when one round tore in, smashed into some communications gear and bounced harmlessly off the back of Castro’s flak jacket. The Marine behind him handed the sergeant major a 7.62-mm slug. Castro handed it back with a smile. It was, he said, “no big deal.”

The pilots began violently rocking the choppers from side to side, hugging as close to the ground as they dared and occasionally executing a stomach-churning pop-up to clear low-hanging power lines. Inside the helicopters, life jackets, ammunition boxes and Marines began pitching about. Pevear and Bruce nervously eyed their passenger, who appeared to be clenching his teeth. “I just looked at him and told him he was with the Marines and everything was going to be all right,” said Bruce. It was an assurance that neither Bruce nor Pevear quite believed. “We were zigzagging around, banking hard all over the place,” Bruce later admitted. “It was a terrifying ride-the roughest helicopter ride I’ve ever been on.”

And then, suddenly, they were in the clear. As the helicopters drew near the Adriatic, the Marines could feel the warm air and smell the cypress and pine trees of the Dalmatian coast. When Berndt turned to see how his passenger was doing, O’Grady looked up at the commander, gave a grin and a thumbs-up. “I knew then,” Berndt says, “that he was O.K.”

–Reported by Edward Barnes/Pale, Ann Blackman/Alexandria, Greg Burke/Aviano, Dan Cray/Los Angeles and Douglas Waller/Washington

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