Pilot: A ‘Scared Little Bunny’ Tells His Story
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (AP) _ He hunted ants, squeezed precious drops of moisture from his socks and hid like a ``scared little bunny″ in the bushes as Serb soldiers fired their rifles just a couple of yards away.
Capt. Scott O’Grady had only one explanation Saturday for why the Serbs didn’t find him: ``God. He protected me,″ he told a news conference the day after returning to this NATO base.
Saying he was no ``Rambo″ and no hero, the pilot whose plane was downed by a Serb missile June 2 during a NATO mission over Bosnia attributed much of his survival for six days to his faith.
He also credited common sense and his training at Air Force survival school in Spokane, Wash., where the 29-year-old pilot spent much of his youth.
O’Grady matter-of-factly recounted details that would have made his instructors proud _ such as lying face-down in a clump of bushes and covering his ears with his green-tipped gloves to blend in better with the vegetation.
During his first public recounting of his ordeal, he also admitted to a couple of mistakes. The first was opening his parachute too soon, meaning he drifted for an agonizingly long time in full view of people below.
Thirst was his main enemy, he said. He started off with eight four-ounce packets of water in his survival kit, but ``that went down quick.″ He listened for frogs and the sound of creeks and at one point drank a few drops of moisture he managed to wring from his socks.
He said he wasn’t really hungry until the last couple of days but then ``it was hard to eat ... because my mouth was so dry.″
He sampled grass after he saw some cows grazing and decided ``if they could live off of it, I could.″ One day he stuck his finger into an anthill near where he had bedded down in the bushes.
``They scamper really quickly so it’s hard to catch them,″ O’Grady said, breaking into a grin. ``Food aversion isn’t a problem when you’re hungry.″
``Most of the time, my face was in the dirt, just praying that no one would see me,″ O’Grady said. ``The worst point was the first day. I was on the ground, everyone was walking around me. They were shooting their rifles. To me, they weren’t just shooting bunny rabbits.
Military officials began the news conference by playing the tape of O’Grady’s radio conversation with Capt. Thomas Hanford, the first U.S. fighter pilot he contacted after being shot down last week.
As he heard himself say ``I’m alive!″ O’Grady broke into tears, requested some tissues and asked for a few minutes to regain composure.
O’Grady said that as soon as his F-16 fighter jet was struck by a Serb missile, he knew what had happened.
``The only thing I saw was the cockpit disintegrating,″ he said. His next sight was ``this beautiful gold handle″ _ the ejection handle.
O’Grady said he would move around only at night, ranging at most 1 miles from where he landed.
Two cows he named Leroy and Alfred were especially fond of grazing nearby. He feared ``Tinkerbell,″ the name O’Grady gave to their bell-ringing herder, would find him.
O’Grady said he slept at most for a half-hour at a time, once waking up in terror when an artillery piece went off nearby.
He heard the roar of NATO jets overhead two or three times, but that was only during the day, when it would have been too risky to try to contact them.
After he did make radio contact, in the early hours of Thursday, his sixth day in the woods, O’Grady had to convince his would-be rescuers that he was really O’Grady. He passed muster in part by saying the name of his unit when he earlier served in South Korea.
As the elite Marines team from the USS Kearsarge in the Adriatic homed in on him, O’Grady sent up a red smoke flare and turned his survival hat inside out from the green side to the orange one ``so at least they would know that anybody who has got an orange hat on must be a stupid American.″
``When they said run for the helicopter, I was running through the bushes, running through the fog,″ he said. ``What do they see coming out is a guy with a beard, pistol, orange hat running at them.″
``They waved me on and the funny thing about that is that they teach you if anybody does come and rescue you in that type of situation never to run to the helicopter with a loaded gun,″ O’Grady said.
That training lapse appeared to be forgiven. Officers at Aviano said that O’Grady will brief instructors at the Spokane survival school about what he learned.
Base officials said O’Grady would leave Sunday morning for Washington, D.C., and a possible meeting with President Clinton. After that, O’Grady will spend time with his family and ″take one day at a time.″
``I just want to have a normal life,″ he said.
He also needs time to heal sore feet. Navy doctors who examined him when he was flown to the Kearsarge on Thursday had only mentioned burns on his cheek and neck from ejecting, as well as hypothermia and dehydration. O’Grady didn’t say exactly what was wrong with his feet, but said he had difficulty running and that he didn’t realize how many aches and pains he had until he was aboard ship.