As Jill Carroll's plane approached Boston Sunday - heading to a private reunion with her mother, father, and twin sister - she reveled in the small wonders of her freedom.
After she boarded her flight from Frankfurt Sunday, she was touched to find a red rose on her dinner tray. She picked it up and inhaled deeply.
"I finally feel like I am alive again. I feel so good," Carroll said Sunday. "To be able to step outside anytime, to feel the sun directly on your face - to see the whole sky. These are luxuries that we just don't appreciate every day."
After her 82 days of captivity in Iraq, Ms. Carroll was reunited with her family amid long hugs and joyful tears. Like any American dad, Jim Carroll had the video camera running when a dark, unmarked van pulled up. At first, the Carroll family wasn't sure if it was Jill or not.
They crowded around an open living-room window and yelled her nickname, "Zippy," out the window, waving wildly.
Seconds later, she came through the door and the family met her coming down the hallway in a single family embrace.
Jill wept, and said, "I'm sorry."
Carroll is just starting to become aware of how many people were touched by her plight - and to appreciate her freedom.
During the first hour of her homeward flight, she admired the rose's pure color, occasionally holding the flower up to the sunlight streaming in the window.
Later, a flight steward dropped off a copy of Friday's USA Today. She saw her own face framed by a black head scarf looking back. It was a photo of the giant poster that had been erected in Rome.
But what tickled her most were the pictures of her family. She kissed the photo of her dad, Jim Carroll. "He looks good," she said. She ran her fingers over the photo of her mom, Mary Beth.
After morning and afternoon debriefings with members of the US Hostage Working Group in Baghdad, she began her journey home, lifting off from Iraq early Saturday. She was accompanied by a Monitor correspondent, a US State Department official, and two US military officials on a C-17 military flight to Germany.
After landing at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, she spent a rainy Saturday napping, talking with her family by phone, and catching up on the news. She learned of the controversy surrounding the release of a videotape, made by her captors, of Carroll criticizing President Bush and US policies in Iraq. She spent part of the afternoon drafting a response.
"During my last night in captivity, my captors forced me to participate in a propaganda video. They told me they would let me go if I cooperated. I was living in a threatening environment, under their control, and wanted to go home alive. I agreed," she said in a statement issued Saturday.
"Things that I was forced to say while captive are now being taken by some as an accurate reflection of my personal views. They are not. The people who kidnapped me and murdered Allan Enwiya are criminals, at best. They robbed Allan of his life and devastated his family. They put me, my family and my friends - and all those around the world, who have prayed so fervently for my release - through a horrific experience. I was, and remain, deeply angry with the people who did this."
Carroll had been their captive for three months and even the smallest details of her life - what she ate and when, what she wore, when she could speak - were at her captors' whim. Before making the last video, she was told that they had already killed another American hostage.
That video appeared Thursday, March 30, on a jihadist website that carries videos of beheadings and attacks on American forces.
In fact, Carroll did what many hostage experts and past captives would have urged her to do: Give the men who held the power of life and death over her what they wanted.
"You'll pretty much say anything to stay alive because you expect people will understand these aren't your words," says Micah Garen, a journalist and author who was held captive by a Shiite militia in southern Iraq for 10 days in August 2004. "Words that are coerced are not worth dying over."
Shortly before her release, her captors - who refer to themselves as the Revenge Brigade - also told her they had infiltrated the US diplomatic compound in Baghdad, and she would be killed if she went there or cooperated with the American authorities. It was a threat she took seriously in her first few hours of freedom.
Carroll worked at the Wall Street Journal's Washington office in early 2002 when that paper's reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted and beheaded in Pakistan. "Many of her colleagues knew him and it was very emotional in the office,'' Mr. Carroll, her father, said Friday after talking to Jill by phone. "She had that memory in the back of her head while she was being threatened."
In making their last video, Mr. Carroll says, her captors "obviously wanted maximum propaganda value in the US. After listening to them for three months she already knew exactly what they wanted her to say, so she gave it to them with appropriate acting to make it look convincing."
Those who encountered Carroll in a professional context repeatedly praised her fairness and compassion, as demonstrated by some of the thousands of letters the Monitor has received in her support.
"Her professionalism and objectivity were unparalleled within the media community," Capt. Patrick Kerr, a Marine public affairs officer who got to know Carroll last December, when she spent a month with a Marine unit in Western Iraq, said in an e-mail.
"I saw her in Husaybah, on the Syrian border, in early December shortly before I returned to the States. Aside from being very personable and down to earth, what really struck me was Jill's bravery. She seemed to fit right in with the marines and Iraqi security forces," he wrote in January.
The Monitor's editor, Richard Bergenheim, says that "none of us - except perhaps her personal friends and family - know what Jill's views are about the war in Iraq. But we do know that they did not color her reporting for the Monitor. She covered a wide spectrum of people in Iraq and that is part of what made her reporting valuable."
Mr. Garen, who was forced to make a propaganda video by his own captors, says that "I said the US should 'stop the massacre' in Najaf - and they weren't my words, and I felt very uncomfortable saying them," recalls Garen.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Sen. John McCain said he wouldn't take the propaganda video made by Carroll's captors "seriously. I would not, any more than we took seriously other tapes and things that were done in other prison situations, including the Vietnam war."
In his book "American Hostage," co-authored with his wife Marie-Hélène, he recounts his experience and delves into the methods and motives of kidnappers. "The point of taking hostages is to get them to make propaganda statements," he says. "The job of a civilian hostage ... is to stay alive."
On Saturday evening, Carroll was savoring her freedom. The rain had stopped. She took a long stroll with a Monitor colleague around the Ramstein Air Base, drinking in the cool night air. The conversation bounced from what had happened in the world at large during the past three months to the details of her own release.
Sunday, Carroll rose early, was driven to Frankfurt airport, and boarded Flight 422 to Boston.
During her captivity, she says she was moved several times. But she was always held in rooms where she couldn't see outside. At one point, she could see strands of sunlight entering her "cave," and that buoyed her spirits.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, during the flight Sunday, her nose was often pressed against the window. She marveled at the expanse of blue and what it represented. "Talk about freedom: here we are right above the clouds, we're in the sky - when I was so far away from it. It's wonderful," she said.
Throughout the past two days, there's been a dawning awareness of her celebrity - and how many people around the world who had prayed for her release: The warm reception by military personnel at Ramstein, the media waiting at the base, the strangers smiling at the airport and on the plane. And there was the German security guard who ushered her to seat 84A.
Before turning to leave, the burly guard hesitated. "Welcome back home," he said, eyes brimming with tears.