Missing Navy Pilot Found Buried in Iraq Desert 18 Years After Crash

August 3, 2009 - 6:03 AM
Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher was called the first casualty of the 1991 Gulf War. But until now, his true status was a mystery, and the Pentagon didn't know whether he was dead or missing.
Washington (AP) - Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher was called the first casualty of the 1991 Gulf War. But his true status was a mystery, and the Pentagon didn't know whether he was dead or missing.
 
For nearly two decades, Speicher's family, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., pressured the Defense Department to find an answer. Finally, the Pentagon announced Sunday that his remains had been found.
 
Shot down over west-central Iraq on a combat mission 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, "history will finally record -- that he was one of the very first patriots to give his life in the liberation of Kuwait."
 
Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for the 33-year-old Speicher. A lieutenant commander when he went missing, Speicher later reached the rank of captain because he kept receiving promotions while his status was unknown.
 
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.
 
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.
 
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.
 
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, conveyed condolences to Speicher's family in a statement from Baghdad. "Although we cannot fully understand the sense of loss, or the pain his family has shouldered throughout the years of waiting, we hope they can find solace in his dignified and honorable return home," he 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.