By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009
A nearly two-decade-long odyssey to find Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, whose fighter jet was shot down during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War, ended Sunday when the U.S. military announced that an Iraqi living in the remote desert expanse of Anbar province had helped direct Marines to the downed pilot's burial site.
Speicher's fate had been the subject of several high-level Pentagon investigations, hundreds of rumors and countless conspiracy theories since his plane was shot down over western Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. His friends and family, including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared, never gave up hope that he would be found.
It is unclear why the Iraqi who helped lead the Marines to the pilot's body came forward more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Throughout much of the Iraq war, Anbar province, where Speicher's plane went down, was the heart of the Sunni insurgency and was one of the most violent places in Iraq. In late 2006, Sunni tribes, which had allied themselves with al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives, switched sides and teamed with the U.S. military to fight the extremists.
Early last month, the Iraqi citizen approached U.S. Marines and said he knew two other Iraqis who remembered the jet crashing in the desert. The Marines quickly tracked down the two witnesses, one of whom told them he was present when a group of Bedouins buried Speicher's remains. The Iraqis then led the Marines to the crash site, where Speicher's body was found.
The Pentagon did not explain why the Bedouins chose to bury Speicher. Muslim law demands that a burial be conducted promptly after death, and it is possible that the Bedouins buried him out of respect for the body.
A 53-year-old tribal leader who asked not to be named said he recalls Iraqi army officers coming to him for guidance shortly after Speicher's remains were found.
"They asked me if it was religiously acceptable to bury a Christian like you'd bury a Muslim," the tribal leader said. "I told them that regardless of religion, any person should be properly buried."
The discovery of Speicher's remains brings resolution to the most prominent mystery of the Persian Gulf War at a time when the U.S. military's heavy involvement in the long Iraq war is poised over the next year to draw to a close.
Hours after Speicher's jet crashed, then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney appeared on television and announced that the United States had suffered its first fatality of the war with Iraq. Because Speicher's remains were never found, the mystery over the pilot's fate persisted, and at least one Iraqi exile claimed to have seen him in captivity. The exile was later discredited.
As the United States was readying for war with Iraq in fall 2002, the Navy said it was switching his status to "missing/captured." Senior Navy officials never explained why the change was made or what evidence the Navy had to suggest that Iraqi forces were holding Speicher. Some speculated that it was part of a broader campaign inside the Pentagon to drum up support for the war.
Speicher's family, which lives in Jacksonville, Fla., continued to push the Pentagon to search for the downed pilot. His case captured the attention of many lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
A spokeswoman for Speicher's relatives told the Associated Press on Sunday that she was pleased that the Pentagon never gave up on finding him. "The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued with our request" not to abandon the search, said Cindy Laquidara, the family spokeswoman.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military uncovered occasional clues suggesting that Speicher might have survived the crash of his F-18 Hornet fighter jet. Only months after the Army stormed into Baghdad in April 2003, U.S. troops discovered what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison, prompting new hope for his family and friends.
A few weeks later, Nelson visited the spare, dirty prison cell and proclaimed there was new secret intelligence suggesting that Speicher had survived the crash. "I cannot tell you what the evidence is," he said in a 2003 conference call with reporters. "But there is new evidence, and the clues to me are promising."
On Sunday, Nelson struck a mournful note. "We all clung to the slim hope that Scott was still alive and would one day come home to his family," he told reporters.
The Pentagon also excavated a potential gravesite in the Iraqi capital in 2005, about 100 miles from where the body was discovered.
Other studies of the Speicher case followed in 2005 and 2008, reaching conflicting conclusions about the pilot's fate. The last review, which was ordered by the secretary of the Navy, determined that Speicher had died in Iraq. The study noted that his parachute was never found and that he never activated his emergency beacon signal or tried in any other way to communicate his location via radio.
For some friends of Speicher's who had pushed the Pentagon for years to step up efforts to find him, the discovery of his body in the desert expanse of western Iraq was surreal and even a bit disquieting.
"A lot of things don't add up for me," said Nels Jensen, a high school classmate who helped form the group Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher. "I find it really bizarre that they say he died in the crash, considering all of the evidence to suggest otherwise."
Speicher's remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware last week.
Working from dental records, Pentagon pathologists in Rockville were able to confirm that the remains, which included a jawbone and skeletal fragments, were Speicher's. The Pentagon also plans to conduct DNA tests on the remains to confirm that they are those of the Navy captain. It will take about 24 hours to get the results of the tests.
Senior Navy officials said Speicher's recovery is a testament to the U.S. military's determination to honor its war dead and to bring them home. "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how difficult that search may be," said Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations. "We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Captain Speicher and his family for the sacrifice they have made for our nation and the example of strength they have set for all of us."
Special correspondent Othman Mukhtar in Fallujah, Iraq, contributed to this report.