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Spirits Soar as Pilot Recounts Adventure

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s been more than 16 months since U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady’s fighter plane was shot down in the skies over Bosnia and he emerged a national hero.

His harrowing story of spending six days and six nights hiding from the Serbs and surviving on a diet of rainwater, insects, leaves and grass before being rescued by Marines has already been told countless times.

But the public’s admiration hasn’t slackened, judging from reaction to O’Grady’s appearance Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral.

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“I can’t believe people still want to hear my story,” O’Grady told a capacity crowd of more than 3,000. “But until that ends, I’m going to keep telling people my story and the three things that got me through: faith, family and patriotism.”

The words “role model” came up time and time again as people talked about O’Grady’s appearance with the Rev. Robert H. Schuller during two morning services. Hundreds waited in line outside the church to have O’Grady sign paperback copies of his best-seller, “Return With Honor.”

Frank Usher, 51, came from Claremont with his 10-year-old son, Chris, and said of O’Grady: “I think he’s a very courageous young man and a credit to the armed forces. He’s the kind of person who I would like my son to know about.”

Anaheim resident Theresa Ward, 58, hoped O’Grady’s story would inspire her 13-year-old grandson, who she said has grown somewhat cynical about his future.

“I’m just so happy to know that there are young men like him,” Ward said, clutching a book O’Grady had signed for the teenager.

Third-grader Matthew Thompson walked away from the service saying he wants to grow up to be a fighter pilot, just like O’Grady. But forget about eating bugs.

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“I just know I wouldn’t want to eat them alive,” said the 9-year-old. “The only time I’d even think of eating an ant would be if it was dead and dipped in chocolate.”

O’Grady was helping enforce the no-fly zone over war-torn Bosnia on June 2, 1995, when his F-16 was cut in half by a surface-to-air missile fired by Serbs. He ejected from the plane and spent 25 minutes parachuting five miles to the ground, where hostile troops awaited.

“The ejection was not as bad as having an airplane exploding around you,” O’Grady said. “It was a long ride coming down in that parachute and I had a lot of time to think. I thought about the work I had ahead. I had to rely on my training and rely on my faith.”

As O’Grady hid, Bosnian Serb search parties came within a few feet of him each day. He was somehow able to elude them until his rescue.

During his interview-style appearance with Schuller, O’Grady often mentioned his faith and the instrumental role he said it played in guiding him through the experience. He said that as he hid, he spent his time praying and delving into his relationship with God.

“As soon as [the missile] destroyed my airplane, the first thing I did was pray to God,” he said. “I thought, ‘Please don’t let me die. This is not the way I want to die. I’ve had a beautiful life and if it’s your will, so be it. But I have so much more to live for so please don’t let me die.’ That’s what was going through my mind.”

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O’Grady, now 30, left active duty last fall and is now part of an Air Force Reserve combat squadron. He also works on behalf of a hospital medical research program and speaks throughout the country. Movie rights to his book have been purchased by a studio and will soon become a big-screen adventure.

“The whole experience I had was such an amazing period in my life,” he said. “Even while I was being hunted, it was the most phenomenal experience I’ve ever had. I just thank God I was able to come back to tell people about it.”

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