Gulf War Mystery Ends: Pilot's Remains Recovered

For their part, military officials say the discovery affirms the commitment to bringing troops home.

"Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," said Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations, in a statement. "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."

Speicher, of Jacksonville, Fla., flew his F-18 Hornet off the carrier USS Saratoga on the opening night of the war in January 1991, and went down west of Baghdad. He apparently was attacked by an Iraqi MiG-25 fighter.

He was the first American lost in the Gulf War and the last still unaccounted for. His wingman reported two balls of fire. He said he saw one when he thought the plane had been hit and another when the plane hit the ground.

Investigators Recovered Evidence Speicher Ejected From Aircraft

There was never any communication from the ground so, at that point, Speicher was listed as "killed in action, body not recovered."

In 1995, Navy investigators, under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, visited the crash site, also north of Baghdad (the exact location remains classified by the United States), and uncovered evidence that they believed confirmed he was dead. Based upon that evidence, the Navy made a second determination of Speicher's death in 1996.

But the investigators also gained evidence suggesting Speicher had ejected from the aircraft. A flight suit was found with faded areas where the pilot's patches would be, and the canopy, blown from the aircraft, was found, suggesting an ejection. But no ejection seat was found.

Still, in 2001, the Navy changed Speicher's status from "killed in action" to "missing in action."

At the time, a Defense Department official told ABC News, "We have reason to think he survived the ejection."

The Pentagon said it was changing its determination based on fairly new, highly classified intelligence information that it could not release to the public.

Military Investigators Continued the Search

Underscoring the abnormality of the case, the decision to reclassify Speicher was made at the White House. Usually the Pentagon would make such moves.

During the 1995 investigation, evidence was uncovered suggesting Iraqis had combed the site. In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq gave investigators the opportunity to gather more information from the country.

More than 50 sites were searched by military crews in the months after the invasion, including hospitals, prisons, security archives and the original crash site, The Associated Press reported.

In 2005, investigators excavated a potential grave site in Baghdad and made other local inquiries.

Last year, after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which monitors prisoners of war and service members missing in action, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter called for another review of the Speicher case.

Although many in the military believed Speicher died after the crash, and intelligence never found uncovered evidence that he was alive, Winter kept the classification as missing. However, he maintained his own reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead, The Associated Press reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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