Gulf war casualty found buried in Iraq

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.


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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  1. bryan mcclellan

    RIP Captain.

    Now lets go after the rest of our people left in the hell holes of infamy and to Hell with what Sen John McCain thinks about it or is trying to hide!

  2. AustinRanter

    Bryan, I agree with your post, but I’d like to open up a possible irony.

    It took 18 years to discover the remains of this young officer. You know this young officer, a biological being, most likely rapidly deteriorated after death and especially under such profound weather and terrain conditions, would most likely become nothing more than a few bone fragments over 18 years.

    A human body really doesn’t possess any inert materials that could help it be detected if buried underground (or disintegrated enough over time, while laying on the earth surface). There’s no magnetic properties that would be seen by metal detectors and such. And most likely, since human bodies kind of blend in with the elements after buried, it’s highly unlikely that they would absorb heat and reflect that heat back up into the atmosphere or surrounding air mass…allowing for detection by special instrumentation.

    How fast could Weapons of Mass Destruction deteriorate after Bush made the claim they existed?

    In all probabilities…most such items would possess way less degradable material of that of a human being. And they most likely would possess substantial magnetic properties. Also it would seem like they might have heat absorbing and reflecting properties…if buried, which could be detected with long-time existing instruments used to find such things.

    Will it take another 10 years for alleged WMD emerge, appear, or be found? Tsk, tsk, tsk…me thinks not because of the obvious.

    While human bodies may be difficult to find…BOMBS and SUCH shouldn’t be…even if buried.

  3. bryan mcclellan

    Thanks for that perspective Austin, and I agree as we speak it’s getting later and later in the game.
    My real angst concerning POW/MIA’s stems from the governments apparent refusal to go into extra innings and put real effort into resolving the situation.

    I know that a full accounting is impossible but I feel badly for those without closure whose inquiries have fallen on deaf ears or have been shouted off of the hearing room floor by individuals with something to hide.This type of conduct alone tells me there is something much more destructive buried than WMD’s.

    If on the other hand the effort was done clandestinely to protect our interests/face, why after all this time should it not be revealed to the public that the search was always active and being conducted in earnest. This alone would assuage at least some of the emotions that the families deal with every waking moment and would allay many of the fears that Big Gov just doesn’t care.