Speicher's remains finally found in Iraq

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on August 3, 2009.

After an 18-year saga, the remains of downed F/A-18 pilot Michael Scott Speicher have been found in Iraq, the Pentagon announced Sunday, buried in a grave near where his plane crashed on the first day of Operation Desert Storm.

"We thank the active duty men and women whose diligence has made this happen, " the family said in a statement about the search released by its lawyer, Cindy Laquidara.

The family, which declined to comment, is digesting the news but still has questions, Laquidara said, particularly relating to exactly when Speicher died.

"We're discrediting the rumor that he died in the crash, " Laquidara said in an interview. "That's just not accurate."

That information does not fit with data the family has collected over the years, she said, an issue it will bring up during an expected meeting with the Defense Department.

Questions aside, the announcement moves Speicher's family a step closer to ending the trial it has endured for almost two decades.

"The family's been on such a roller coaster, " said Bob Buehn, an S-3 pilot stationed at Cecil Field during the Desert Storm who now handles military affairs for the city. "That first night, there was an expectation that he'd be recovered quickly. No one at that time would think it would turn into an 18-year ordeal."

The pilot left behind two children, now in their 20s, and a wife, who later married Buddy Harris, a former Navy commander and close friend of Speicher's who has been a strong advocate in the search for the missing man.

It's been a long wait for the family, said Marlin Crider, a retired aviator who used to go to church with the Speicher family when Scott was teaching Sunday School at Lake Shore United Methodist Church.

"It's been rough on the family for sure, " he said. "We just thought he'd be found quickly."


The body, whose jawbone matches dental records of Speicher's, was found last week by Marines who were led to the body by Iraqi civilians, the Pentagon said Sunday morning.

In July, Iraqi citizens told Marines stationed in Al Anbar Province that they were present when Speicher crashed in west-central Iraq on the first day of the Gulf War. One Iraqi said Speicher's body was found at the crash site by Bedouins and buried.

General Muslim burial practices would involve wrapping the body in cloth and burying it about 6 feet deep, said Parvez Ahmed, a former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Muslims believe that until a body is buried, the soul does not find rest, " Ahmed said.

The Bedouins would likely not have come forward until now because of fear of the Hussein regime, said Camelia Suleiman of the Middle East Studies Center at Florida International University.

"During Saddam Hussein's time, there was the fear, " she said. "They're not going to say much about it. It's better to be silent than to engage with the state."

The Marines searched the area indicated by the men and recovered remains over the past week. After being flown to Dover Air Force base, the remains, which included bones and skeletal fragments, were identified by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology based on dental records.

"It's bittersweet, " said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who pushed the Pentagon to keep the search going. "It's a good thing there is closure."

Speicher's fate has long been a question mark since the night his F/A-18 Hornet was shot down and Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary, went on television to say the U.S. had suffered its first casualty.

The government later backed off the statement that he had died, though, first listing him as missing, then as captured and then again as missing.

In 1995 - two years after the Pentagon said the crash site was found - Speicher's family was told his jet had been found with evidence he ejected and survived, and in 1999, an Iraqi defector told investigators he drove an American pilot to Baghdad about a month after the Persian Gulf War began.

Theories abound as to why more was not done to search for the pilot immediately following the crash, but for Nelson, the why is less important than what he sees as the simple fact that sufficient action was not taken.

"The military dropped the ball in the 1990s, " the senator said. "We should never walk away from a downed pilot."

For some, the recovery of the remains helps ease part of the sting of that mistake.

"I'm really happy we never did give up, " said John Sutherland, a retired Navy commander who worked with Speicher in VA-106. "We never leave a comrade behind."


During the past 18 years, rumors and conjecture swirled that Speicher was in prison, killed by Saddam or one of his aides, or had amnesia and was living in the desert. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the initials "MSS" were found scratched in the wall of a Baghdad prison, believed by some to stand for Michael Scott Speicher.

Defectors and intelligent agents reported sightings of the pilot in captivity in the years after Desert Storm, leading some to believe the pilot was killed in the run up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"There is a strong case that he was put there [in the desert] after he died at some other place, " said Amy Waters Yarsinske, who wrote "No One Left Behind, " a book arguing that Speicher was captured. "I think they put him back where they thought we believed he would be found."

But many in the aviation community figured the pilot had not survived the crash.

"Either desert animals had gotten him or Bedouins had buried him, " said retired Capt. John Leenhouts, who was commanding a Corsair fighter wing over Iraq the night Speicher was shot down.

Having the remains found brings closure to that community as well as the family, Leenhouts said. "You never want to leave that lingering question, what happened to him?" he said. "Without hard evidence, it's just conjecture. As much as you hate to confirm death, we most surely thought it."

Others were more optimistic. "At one point in time it wasn't whether he was coming home, it was when, " said Nels Jensen, a founder of Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher.

Jensen said when he heard the news Sunday, he was hit by a wave of relief and then disappointment. "To suggest now that he never did survive would be a big disgrace, " Jensen said. "They dropped the ball on Scott. We never sent out a search and rescue team. If so, we would have found Scott in the desert."

Now, it is Defense policy to have a rescue plan in place for downed pilots - a change that will serve as Speicher's legacy, said Yarsinske.

"No one should have to go through that, " she said.

And no more will, said Nelson, who plans to retire the MIA/POW flag he flies outside his office in Speicher's honor.

"They know if they have to punch out, " he said, "someone is coming for them."

JAN. 16, 1991 Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher shot down over Iraq. (He was later promoted to captain.)
DECEMBER 1993 Crash site found.
1995 Family told jet was found with evidence Speicher had ejected.
1996 Speicher given a tomb at Arlington National Cemetery.
2001 Status changed from killed in action to missing in action, the first time such a change has been made.
2002 Status changed to missing/captured.
APRIL 2003 Initials "MSS" found in Iraqi prison cell.
JANUARY 2009 Navy convenes board to consider closing Speicher's file.
MARCH Status changed back to missing in action.
JULY Iraqis tell Marines general area where Speicher is buried.
AUG. 1 Family notified that Speicher's remains had been recovered.

The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology is conducting DNA testing on the remains, with results expected in a day or so. After that, the remains will be released to the family. The family has not yet announced plans regarding a funeral or memorial service.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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