Remains of pilot missing since Gulf War are found in Iraqi desert

BAGHDAD — The Defense Department said Sunday it has identified the remains of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot who has been missing since he was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991.

Speicher, who lived in Jacksonville, was the only American missing in action from that war, and the development ends 18 years of uncertainty for his family and for the military. A large base in Tikrit, Iraq, is named after him.

Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in the western Iraqi 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 Bedouin Iraqis, who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried at an obscure place called Wadi Thumayal.

"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 Bedouin's comments appeared to indicate that Speicher died in the crash and was not held as a prisoner.

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.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., is also comparing DNA from the remains with reference samples previously provided by family members.

The Pentagon did not explain why the Bedouins chose to bury Speicher. Muslim law requires that a burial is conducted soon after death, and it is possible that the Bedouins buried him out of respect for the body.

Speicher's family issued a statement Sunday saying, "The news that Capt. Speicher has died on Iraqi soil after ejecting from his aircraft has been difficult for the family, but his actions in combat, and the search for him, will forever remain in their hearts and minds."

Speicher was stationed on the USS Saratoga when he served in the Gulf War. At the time of his disappearance, he was 33. He left behind his wife, Joanne; daughter, Megan, 3; and son, Michael, 1.

Speicher's 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.

Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned Saturday that Speicher's remains had been found. "The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with our request" to not abandon the search, she said. "We will be bringing him home."

President Barack Obama called the news "a reminder of the selfless service that led him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."

"My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and I hope that the recovery of his remains will bring them a needed sense of closure," Obama said in a statement issued Sunday.

Speicher's fate had been the subject of several high-level Pentagon investigations, hundreds of rumors and countless conspiracy theories since his FA-18 Hornet was shot down over western Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.

Hours later, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced that the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war.

In 1995, following information supplied by a Qatari military official, investigators from the Pentagon and the International Committee of the Red Cross found the wreckage of Speicher's plane. Iraqis provided a flight suit with the name tag cut out. But no remains were found.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton speculated that Speicher "might be alive."

In 2001, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died.

As the United States was readying for war with Iraq in fall 2002, the Navy said it was switching his status to "missing/captured." Senior Navy officials never explained why it made the change or what evidence it had to suggest that Iraqi forces were holding Speicher. Some speculated that it was part of a broader campaign inside the Pentagon to drum up support for the war.

In 2004, Sen. Bill Nelson beseeched then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to offer a $1 million reward for information leading to Speicher's return.

Nelson said Sunday that he planned to finally take down the POW/MIA flag he had placed outside his office when the pilot went missing. Speicher's 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 at a news conference at his office in Jacksonville.

To the Navy, the discovery is evidence of the military's commitment to bring its troops home. "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations, said Sunday.

Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for 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.

After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, investigators fanned out across Anbar province. More than 50 sites were checked by military search crews in the months after the invasion — hospitals, prisons, security archives, homes, a massive grave outside Baghdad and the original site where Speicher's plane crashed, about 100 miles north of the Saudi Arabian border.

An Iraqi document was found that seemed to list Speicher as among U.S. prisoners of war, but analysts found the document inconclusive and possibly fraudulent.

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

Remains of pilot missing since Gulf War are found in Iraqi desert 08/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 3, 2009 1:01am]

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