On January 17, 1991, LCDR Michael Scott Speicher climbed into the cockpit of his F/A-18 Hornet, preparing to fly one of the first missions of the just-declared Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. An accomplished Navy pilot, Speicher had years of flight experience, and had more carrier landings than anyone else in his squadron. This night was one that he had trained his entire Navy career for. But fate stepped in, and a little more than three hours after he was catapulted off the deck of his aircraft carrier the USS Saratoga, Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher fell out of the sky.

 

Here is a timeline of events:

Jan 17, 1991: Speicher, piloting an F/A-18 Hornet from the carrier Saratoga, is apparently shot down by an Iraqi fighter jet during a bombing run over west-central Iraq. Dick Cheney, then defense secretary, announces at a press conference that he was killed, the first American casualty of the war. The Navy, however, lists his status as missing in action.

March 1991: The Iraqis give the United States 1.5 pounds of human flesh they say are the remains of a pilot named “Mickel,” but DNA tests prove it isn’t Speicher.

May 22, 1991: The Navy accepts the initial “finding of fact” that Speicher is dead and officially declares him killed in action. He posthumously will be promoted to captain.

July 4, 1992: In Jacksonville, Speicher’s wife, Joanne, marries Albert “Buddy” Harris Jr., a pilot and close friend of Speicher’s from the Navy. Harris has since become Speicher’s biggest advocate, regularly meeting with U.S. military officials.

December 1993: A senior military officer from Qatar, hunting in western Iraq, stumbles upon the remains of a U.S. jet. He takes pictures, including several that show the plane’s canopy had landed some distance from the plane, suggesting the pilot may have ejected. He gives the U.S. Embassy the photos and several parts of the plane, which is identified as Speicher’s.

April 1994: Acting on that information, a U.S. spy satellite photographs a “man-made symbol” at the crash site. Some military officials believe the symbol shows Speicher may have survived the crash.

Mid 1994: The U.S. military plans to send a covert team to the crash site. Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vetoes the plan, saying it was too risky. The Pentagon instead asks the International Committee of the Red Cross for help.

March 1, 1995: The Red Cross reports that Iraq will cooperate, but bureaucratic problems in Iraq delay the trip.

December 1995: Accident specialists from the Defense Department and representatives from the Red Cross visit the crash site. They find it has been excavated, and find no ejection seat or bones. Bedouin nomads hand the team a flight uniform, which is later identified as likely Speicher’s. But Navy investigators find “minimal weathering and adherent soil,” leading them to believe the Iraqis planted the suit.
Tests also showed the suit -- and the pilot in it -- were probably not in the plane when it landed. That other evidence leads the Navy to believe Speicher likely ejected. Iraq maintains Speicher died in the crash or was eaten by wolves.

Jan. 11, 2001: President Clinton and the Navy change his status to missing in action, based on classified reports that indicate he ejected safely. There are unconfirmed reports from Iraq that he is in custody, that he walks with a limp and has facial scars.

Oct. 11, 2002: The Navy changes Speicher’s status to missing/captured, saying there’s no evidence the officer is dead. “While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down,” Navy Secretary Gordon England wrote in his explanation. “Further, it is my firm belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher.”

March 2002: Speicher’s classmates from the Forrest High School class of 1975 form Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher, to raise awareness about their friend and apply political pressure for answers from Iraq.

March 2003: The United States and Britain invade Iraq.

April 2003: U.S. troops, acting on a tip, find Speicher’s initials, MSS, on the wall of a cell in Hakmiyah prison in Baghdad. Informers tell the Associated Press he was kept there off and on in the mid 1990s.

June 2003: A team of military experts is assigned to look for Speicher or for evidence that he was ever held by the Iraqis. Speicher’s initials also are found on a post at another detention center.

March 1, 2004: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, sends Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter asking why he never authorized the $1-million reward for information about Speicher that Congress had authorized and funded last year. The letter urges Rumsfeld to reconsider. So far, Rumsfeld has not responded.

 

Michael Scott Speicher

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