Aug. 2, 2009— -- 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.
Military on Search and Recovery: 'We Will Never Give Up'
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."
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.
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.