WASHINGTON – The remains of the first American lost in the Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said Sunday, a sorrowful resolution of a nearly two-decade old question about the fate of Navy pilot Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher.
The Pentagon said the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on Saturday positively identified the remains, buried in the desert and located after officials received new information from an Iraqi citizen about a crash.
Speicher's disappearance has bedeviled investigators since his fighter was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the 1991 war.
The top Navy officer said 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," said Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations.
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.
The Pentagon initially declared Speicher killed. But uncertainty — and the lack of remains — led officials over the years to change his status a number of times to "missing in action" and later "missing-captured." The family Speicher left behind, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., continued to press for the military to do more to resolve the case.
Speicher's story has never waned in that city. A large banner flying outside a firefighters' credit union has a photo of him with the words: "Free." At his church, a memorial was put up in his honor and the swimming complex at his alma mater, Florida State University, was named for the pilot.
Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned on 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."
Laquidara said the family would have another statement after being briefed by the defense officials; she did not know when that would be.
More than a decade after he was shot down in a combat mission, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. That led to a number of new leads, including the discovery of what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison.
The search also led investigators to excavate a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, track down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and make numerous other inquiries in what officials say was an exhaustive search.
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 which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher's FA-18 Hornet.
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, thesaid.
"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain 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, the pathology institute in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them with DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher's family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in the Pentagon statement. "I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home."
Speicher was shot down over west-central Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.
Hours after his plane went down, the Pentagon publicly declared him killed. Then-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.
A review in 2005 was conducted with information gleaned after Baghdad fell. The review board recommended then that the Pentagon work with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government to "increase the level of attention and effort inside Iraq" to resolve the question of Speicher's fate.
Last year, then Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered yet 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 review 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.
Speicher's family — including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared — believed more evidence would surface as Iraq becomes more stable.
One of Speicher's high school classmates 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.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., had pressed several years ago to get the military to renew a search for Speicher and he once visited the Baghdad prison cell where it was thought Speicher may have carved his initials in the wall.
"We all clung to the slim hope that Scott was still alive and would one day come home to his family," Nelson said Sunday.
The new informant told officials in Iraq of another possible location of Speicher's grave a site very near where his shattered airplane was found in 1993, Nelson said in a statement.