ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE -- As a matter of fact, Carol Darick said, she was very cold.
With a few thousand other ordinary citizens, Darick stood and shivered for hours yesterday morning, waiting for the plane carrying 21 former American prisoners of war to touch down at this military installation in Prince George's County.
"Sure, I'm cold, and it feels like we've been waiting a good while. But it's nothing compared to the wait that the POWs and their families have had," the Silver Spring resident said.
She held a small American flag. Her coat lapel bore an Uncle Sam figure made from red, white and blue pipe cleaners. She said her father makes the figures and sells them at $3.50 a pop.
"I really don't mind waiting out here," she said. "I just want to be able to tell the soldiers, 'Thanks and welcome home.' "
The people in the big crowd that gathered behind a fence near the Andrews tarmac had no familial ties to the returning POWs. But they cheered and they waved their flags, ribbons and homemade signs as if they were all part of one large family.
Two typical signs read, "Welcome home! Thank you! We love you!" and "America is proud of you."
The 19 men and two women, from all branches of the armed forces, had been released in two groups last week in Baghdad. After a few days on the U.S. hospital ship Mercy, they boarded a plane Saturday in Bahrain.
Two stops and 21 hours later, they reached Andrews about noon yesterday in one of the massive, blue-and-white presidential jets emblazoned with the words "United States of America."
They stepped off the plane and were greeted by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Air Force band played "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" and "God Bless America." Family members, sporting their Sunday best and holding flags or ribbons, waited yards away at the site of the welcoming ceremony.
Most of the 21, still in their fatigues, smiled and walked jauntily down the red-carpeted stairway. Once they had exchanged handshakes and greetings with Cheney and Powell, they ran to be embraced and kissed by their families.
Army Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy of Grand Rapids, Mich., who turned 21 on Saturday and is the youngest of the POWs, was the last off the plane. She bounced down the stairs and chewed gum, looking more like a young person going out on a date than a returning prisoner of war.
Army Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Stamaris Jr., 31, of Boise, Idaho, wataken off the plane on a hospital gurney. Air Force Capt. William F. Andrews, 32, of Syracuse, N.Y., walked on crutches. Andrews was injured when his plane was shot down. Stamaris was hurt when his helicopter crashed while searching for Andrews.
Stamaris clutched a folded American flag as he was wheeled to his family. He and his 20 comrades saluted and were at attention throughout the Air Force band's playing of the national anthem.
Cheney then went to the podium and said, simply, "Welcome home." There were cheers from the ex-POWs' families and the big crowd at the fence about a football-field's length away.
"Every American, every man and woman who cares about freedom, owes you their gratitude," Cheney told the former POWs. "You were in our thoughts and our prayers."
Few people could understand what the troops endured while captive, said the secretary, who added, "Only you and those who have shared your special ordeal know how it feels to return to freedom."
"Your country," he said finally, "is opening its arms to greet you."
Air Force Col. David W. Eberly, 43, of Brazil, Ind., the eldest of the POWs, spoke for the returning troops.
"Someday finally came," he said, "and we're glad to be home."
Eberly praised President Bush, Cheney and U.S. military leaders, as well as POWs from the other nations in the anti-Iraq coalition. He thanked the International Red Cross, the Mercy staff and the crew of the presidential plane -- dubbed "Freedom Zero-One" by Eberly -- that carried them home.
"And I've saved the best for last," he said. "You need to know that those who waited also served. . . . If you'll excuse us now, we have some time to make up with our families."
The returning POWs and their families boarded buses that took them to a hangar for some private time together. The 21 later were admitted to nearby military hospitals for further medical tests.
The crowd at the fence cheered and waved as the buses pulled away down the tarmac.
"I wanted to be here to let them know we care, that we appreciate their being over there fighting for us," said Alice Couf of Washington, who, like many in the crowd, brought a camera. "It gave me a real nice feeling to see them come off the plane. I got some good pictures too."
"I feel like this is the least we can do," said Elliot Arditty of Burtonsville, who came to the ceremony with his wife and two young sons. "We just wanted to thank the troops for a job well done."
The younger of Arditty's sons, 4-month-old Alex, lay in a stroller and was covered with blankets.
"He's off to a good patriotic start in life," his dad said, looking down proudly. "And why not? There's no better place to be than America."