A nearly two-decades-old mystery surrounding the first American soldier lost in the Gulf War has finally been solved.
Navy officials announced today that the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has positively identified remains recovered in Iraq as those of Captain Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot shot down in the first hours of Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991.
Since Speicher's jet went down, the military has been unsure about his fate, switching his status from killed in action to missing in action to, eventually, missing captured.
Now the military says the captain, who was a 33-year-old lieutenant commander when he went missing, died after his F/A-18 Hornet crashed in the desert.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher's family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country," said Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, in a statement. "I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home."
With the help of an Iraqi citizen, in early July, Marines stationed in Al Anbar Province went to a location in the desert believed to be the crash site of Speicher's jet, the Navy said. The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqi citizens who remembered an American jet crashing in the desert and the remains of the pilot being buried there too.
The Marines recovered the remains over the past week and then flew them to Dover Air Force Base for identification by a medical examiner. Bones and multiple skeletal fragments were among the recovered remains, but positive identification was made by comparing the jawbone recovered at the site with Speicher's dental records.
After decades hoping for resolution, Speicher's family learned Saturday that his remains had been found. He is survived by his wife, who has since remarried, and two children, who are now college-age.
The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with their request "to not abandon the search," said family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara. "We will be bringing him home."
President Obama said today that the recovery of Speicher's remains "is a reminder of the selfless service that led him to make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom."
"As with all our service men and women considered Missing in Action, we remain steadfast in our determination to bring our American heroes home," the president said in a statement released today. "I am grateful to the Marines who pursued the information that led to Captain Speicher's recovery so that he can now come home.
"My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and I hope that the recovery of his remains will bring them a needed sense of closure," Obama said.
Later today, the Speicher Harris family released another statement thanking the military for keeping up the search for the missing pilot..
"Captain Speicher was a brave and wonderful father, husband, and naval officer who responded without hesitation when his country needed him," the family statement said. "In doing so, he followed many, many, others who have sacrificed for our freedom.
"We thank the active duty men and women whose diligence has made this happen, and hope that this process has prevented another of our service men and women from being left behind," the family said. "We will miss him, and will never forget."