Remains of missing Gulf War pilot found

August 2, 2009 7:40:12 PM PDT
Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, and it was there he apparently was buried by Bedouins, the sand hiding him from the world's mightiest military. For nearly two decades, the family Speicher left behind, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., pushed the Defense Department to find out what had happened to him. On Sunday, the Pentagon disclosed that Marines had recovered Speicher's bones and skeletal fragments - enough for a positive identification.

Shot down over west-central Iraq on a combat mission in his FA-18 Hornet on Jan. 17, 1991, Speicher was declared killed by the Pentagon hours later. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war.

But 10 years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he ever was in captivity. More reviews followed, without definitive answers.

His story never waned in Jacksonville. A large banner flying outside a firefighters' credit union has a photo of him with the words "Free Scott Speicher." At his church, a memorial was put up in his honor. The tennis complex at his alma mater, Florida State University, was named for him.

A high school classmate who helped form the group "Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher" said Sunday his biggest fear was that Speicher had been taken alive and tortured.

"This whole thing has been so surreal for all of the people who have known Scott," said Nels Jensen, 52, who now lives in Arkansas.

Jensen said the group was frustrated the military didn't initially send a search and rescue team after the crash, and then grew more perplexed as reports of his possible capture emerged. "Never again will our military likely not send out a search and rescue party for a downed serviceman," Jensen said.

In a statement issued Sunday, Speicher's family said, "We find some solace in having transformed the search process, so that no serviceman or woman is ever, ever, left behind again."

President Barack Obama thanked the Marines who recovered Speicher's remains. "As with all our service men and women considered Missing in Action, we remain steadfast in our determination to bring our American heroes home," he said.

Former President George H.W. Bush, who was commander in chief in 1991, said, "We already knew he was a hero, one who helped lead our way to a historic victory in the Gulf, but now his family and countrymen know - and history will finally record - that he was one of the very first patriots to give his life in the liberation of Kuwait."

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., planned to take down the POW/MIA flag he had placed outside his office when Speicher went missing. "These children can move on with their lives and know what a hero their father was and he died in the service of his country," Nelson told reporters.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. Speicher's family - including two college-age children who were toddlers when he disappeared - believed more evidence would surface as Iraq grew more stable.

A number of new leads did surface after the invasion, including the discovery of what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison. More than 50 sites were checked by military search crews in the months after the invasion - hospitals, prisons, security archives, homes and the original site where Speicher's plane crashed, about 100 miles north of the Saudi Arabian border.

Crews first visited the site in 1995. They found wings, the canopy and unexploded ordnance, but the cockpit and Speicher were missing.

Investigators excavated a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, tracked down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and made numerous other inquiries.

Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in the western province of Anbar to visit a location in the desert that was believed to be the crash site. The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.

"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Capt. Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.

The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp. He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.

Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.

While dental records have confirmed the remains to be those of Speicher, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them with DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.

Last year, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks prisoners of war and service members missing in action.

Many in the military believed for years that Speicher had not survived the crash or for long after. Intelligence had never found evidence he was alive, and some officials felt last year that all leads had been exhausted and Speicher would finally be declared killed.

But after the latest review, Winter said Speicher would remain classified as missing, despite Winter's strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead.

Announcing his decision, Winter criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged, saying the board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.

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Associated Press writers Kim Gamel in Baghdad, Ron Word in Jacksonville, Fla., and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil
Navy: http://www.navy.mil
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology: http://www.afip.org/index.html


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