By Ben Evans
Sunday, January 4, 2009
The Navy has scheduled a hearing for tomorrow to review the status of a Navy pilot who has been missing since his plane was shot down in Iraq on the first night of the Persian Gulf War.
The family of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, who has been missing since January 1991, says it will oppose any decision by the Navy to declare him killed in action.
The review board hearing comes several months after the Navy received a fresh intelligence report on Speicher from Iraq.
Speicher's relatives, who have seen the latest information, believe Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter is moving toward changing Speicher's status from missing/captured to killed, according to family spokeswoman and attorney Cindy Laquidara.
Family members, including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher went missing, think the Pentagon should do more to determine definitively what happened, Laquidara said. They see the outcome as setting a standard for future missing-in-action investigations, she said.
"This really is a precedent for every other captive serviceman or woman, and it needs to be done right," Laquidara said. "We've looked at the information that's going to be presented to the board, and we feel pretty confident that it's not time under the standards that they've set to change the status. There are things that need to be done before one can be certain."
Speicher, who had lived in the area of Jacksonville, Fla., was the first American lost in the war.
Some believe Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and potential clues later emerged that he might have survived: The initials "MSS" were found scrawled on a prison wall in Baghdad, for example, and there were reports of sightings.
The Pentagon has changed Speicher's status several times. He was publicly declared killed in action hours after his plane went down. Ten years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that he had died.
In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he was ever in captivity.
Another review was done in 2005 with information gleaned after Baghdad fell in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which allowed U.S. officials to search inside Iraq. 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.
The Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks missing-soldier cases and works with other intelligence agencies, submitted its latest report in the fall.
"Captain Speicher's status remains a top priority for the Navy and the U.S. government," Cmdr. Cappy Surette, a Navy spokesman, said recently. "The recent intelligence community assessment reflects exhaustive analysis of information related to Captain Speicher's case."
The final decision on changing Speicher's status must come from the secretary of the Navy; the review board's decision is only a recommendation, said Lt. Sean Robertson, another Navy spokesman.
The board will be composed of three officers, including one who is experienced in F/A-18 fighters, the aircraft Speicher was flying when he was shot down. The board has a legal adviser assigned, and Speicher will also be represented by legal counsel to look after the interests of him and his family, Robertson said.
Laquidara said family members would attend the hearing.
"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. "If Scott's not alive now, he was for a very long time, and that could happen to somebody else."