U.S. identifies remains of pilot missing in Persian Gulf War

The remains of a Navy pilot shot down at the onset of the Persian Gulf War -- the first U.S. combat casualty of the 1991 conflict -- have been recovered by Marines in western Iraq and identified by military specialists.

The findings, based on dental records, appear to finally bring to an end the mystery of just what happened to Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher.

Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had announced that Speicher was the first U.S. serviceman to die in the war, but the military's inability to locate his body resulted in unceasing speculation and controversy. Over the years, Speicher's official status was changed from "missing in action" to "missing in action/body not recovered" to "missing in action/captured."

Successive presidents, secretaries of Defense and secretaries of the Navy wrestled with the mystery and a paucity of information. Some politicians in Washington expressed exasperation with the military and CIA.

At one point, rumors circulated that the father of two was alive and being held prisoner by Saddam Hussein.

The uncertainty led some of Speicher's friends as well as several powerful politicians to assert that the military had broken its promise to never leave a fallen comrade behind.

Finally, nearly 15 years after the wreckage of Speicher's plane was found in the desert west of Baghdad, Marines got a tip leading them last week to the remains, which had apparently been buried by Bedouin tribesmen.

The remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they were identified on Saturday as those of Speicher by specialists at the military mortuary.

"The teeth are a match, both visually and radiographically," the military said in a statement Sunday.

Speicher's family in Jacksonville, Fla., released a statement thanking the Navy for not abandoning the search. "We will be bringing him home," they said.

The family also said they believe the controversy has led the military to be more vigilant about searching for soldiers' bodies: "Although nothing can fill the void left by Capt. Speicher's death, we find some solace in having transformed the search process, so that no serviceman or woman is ever, ever, left behind again."

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

Former President George H.W. Bush, who was commander in chief during the Persian Gulf War, 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."

Speicher, who was known by his middle name, Scott, was 33 when he died. He left behind his wife, Joanne; daughter, Megan, then 3; and son, Michael, 1.

Speicher's father, Wallace, was a Navy pilot during World War II.

Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, notified Speicher's family on Saturday. "The Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," he said.

Speicher's F/A-18 Hornet was shot down Jan. 17, 1991, the first night of the war, while on a mission over Anbar province.

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

In 2001, outgoing President Clinton said that based on some information, it was possible Speicher "might be alive."

Navy Secretary Gordon England in 2002 said he believed the Iraqi government knew what had happened to Speicher but was refusing to help the U.S.

After the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, investigators led by the CIA fanned out across Anbar province. Fifty sites were examined, many excavated, including a mass grave outside Baghdad.

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. The initials MSS were found scratched on a prison wall but investigators discounted that finding.

In 2004, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) urged Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to offer a $1-million reward for information leading to Speicher's return. In 2005, Secretary England concluded that there was no credible evidence that Speicher was dead.

Earlier this year, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter determined that Speicher's status was missing in action, as opposed to the previous status of missing in action/captured.

Over the years, Speicher's family and high school friends from Florida pressed the military not to abandon the search. More than 60 friends formed the group Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher.

"We are all saddened that our friend did not come home alive," the group said in a statement Sunday. "We are thankful for the efforts of the military and his family to find him and bring closure to this ordeal. . . . God speed Scott."

The break in the case came recently when an Iraqi contacted Marines with information about the desert crash site. The Marines were then led to another Iraqi living in the desert who said he was present when Speicher's plane crashed and when his body was found and buried by nomadic tribesmen at an obscure place called Wadi Thumayal.

The Iraqi's remarks appeared to indicate that Speicher died in the crash and was not held as a prisoner.

The remains included bones and multiple skeletal fragments, the military said.

Although the dental records were a match, the military is also running DNA tests at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology DNA Laboratory in Rockville, Md., for additional confirmation.

Speicher, a graduate of Florida State University, was flying off the carrier Saratoga. Various reports have said his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile or by an Iraqi MIG jet. Another Saratoga-based plane was also downed, but the pilot survived.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. renamed an Iraqi air base near Tikrit (Hussein's hometown) in Speicher's honor. President George W. Bush, in addressing the United Nations about why he considered it necessary to bring down Hussein's government, mentioned Speicher.

On the night of the crash, Speicher was a lieutenant commander. He was since promoted twice and was also awarded the Purple Heart. Speicher's widow has since married a Navy officer.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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