Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Brother Abroad

The remains of the first American lost in the Persian Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said Sunday, after struggling for nearly two decades with the question of whether he was dead or alive.

The Pentagon said the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on Saturday had positively identified the remains of Navy Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher, whose disappearance has bedeviled investigators since his fighter jet was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the 1991 war.

The top Navy officer said the discovery illustrates 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.

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.

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, but she didn't know when that would be.

More than a decade after he was shot down in a combat mission, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 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, the Pentagon said.

"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. Laquidara was among those who said she believed he survived the crash.

"It's really easy to put out a yellow ribbon but not so easy to allocate resources to find a missing serviceman or woman," she said earlier this year. "If Scott's not alive now, he was for a very long time, and that could happen to somebody else."

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 to 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.

He is now listed as the first casuality of the Gulf War.

This is Day 183.

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