Twenty-one former American prisoners of war, "every one a hero," journeyed home Saturday in good spirits, embraced by their joyous families as well as a proud nation.

All carried bouquets of flowers given to them by Bahraini officials, and one - Army Spec. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy - celebrated her 21st birthday with a surprise party thrown by her fellow former POWs and medical officials."I feel good," Rathbun-Nealy, of Newaygo, Mich., told reporters before boarding a VIP plane that carried 20 of the Americans home. She declined to comment when asked about her treatment by Iraqi captors. She said her thoughts were of returning to her parents' home and her fiance.

A C-141 medical evacuation plane carried the 21st former POW on the 21-hour flight. Both planes were headed to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

Waiting to welcome the 19 men and two women and give thanks from a grateful nation were Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The POWs were expected to be invited to the White House later Sunday or Monday to receive the thanks of President Bush.

Most of the former POWs said they felt great to be heading home, including Capt. William F. Andrews, 32, of Syracuse, N.Y., who walked to the plane on crutches. Asked what he would do when he arrived home, he replied: "Give my wife a hug."

Perhaps the most seriously injured was Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum, 36, of East Aurora, N.Y., who had a brush with death trying to save a comrade last weekend. Her helicopter crashed in southern Iraq on a search-and-rescue mission for another downed pilot. Five crewmen in her helicopter were killed.

Cornum and two other survivors were taken prisoner. She suffered two broken arms, a broken hand, and facial and knee injuries. Asked if she was treated all right during her captivity, she replied: "Most of the time, yes. The first day wasn't great."

The POWs were initially treated aboard the U.S. hospital ship Mercy off Bahrain after their release in two groups in Baghdad last Monday and Wednesday.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. forces in Operation Desert Storm, hailed them as "every one a hero."

The Mercy's chief medical officer said some of the POWs were struck by their captors and had periods when they were given only bread or water. But the POWs praised Iraqi medical officials, said the official, Navy Capt. Dick Osborne.

"The kinds of abuse that they endured varied extremely," he said. Some were not touched by the captors, but others were "struck a lot during interrogations."

"Luckily there were no lasting effects. It was not intended to maim or kill," Osborne said.