Even in the midst of tragedy there can be happiness. On January 17, 1991, at the onset of the first Gulf War to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, a flight of F-18 Hornet aircraft took off from the carrier U.S. Saratoga in the Gulf on one of the first missions of the conflict. In that group was Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher, the air wing strike leader. When the flight returned to the carrier, Speicher’s plane was not with it. From that point the narrative gets confusing. He was unofficially declared killed in action (KIA), and then missing in action (MIA). In May, he was officially declared KIA, but because of pressure from family and friends, again declared MIA in January 2001. Michael Scott Speicher became the first casualty of the war. There was speculation that he had been captured by the Iraqis and was being secretly held, or that he had been killed and his remains were being withheld. No one ever explained why they would do this. The search for him eventually became a top priority for the US Government. In 1993, a Bedouin boy led US forces to a spot in the desert near the crash site where a flight suit and some debris from a jet ejection seat were found. The search was still ongoing in September 2006 when I was appointed by President Bush as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoners of War and Missing Personnel Affairs and Director of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) after a year as Diplomat in Residence at the University of Houston. The personnel at DPMO were of the opinion that Speicher had died in or shortly after the crash (which has never been satisfactorily explained), and that his status was wrong. They were either criticized or ignored by most of the official establishment. After reviewing all the documents on the case, I had to agree that the minority in DPMO were right, and those who persisted in looking for a live pilot were just plain wrong. For three years, the case periodically landed on my desk. We kept putting our view forward, and it kept being ignored. In July 2009, just days before I ended my tenure and prepared to move on to my next assignment, a unit of US Marines took on the task of searching the site, based on information from a sheik in their area of operations concerning the Bedouin boy who claimed that he had participated in the burial of remains from the crash. They took in earth moving equipment to the area the boy (now a middle age man) remembered from nearly 20 years earlier. After digging up the equivalent of four football fields, they found equipment and human bones that were buried 18 inches deep in the desert sand.
On July 31, 2009, my last day in the office, we waited anxiously for the results of a forensic analysis of the remains. It didn’t come, so I went around the office and said my farewells and went home. Early the next morning, I logged onto my computer, and there on a news site was a press report – the remains had definitely been identified as Scott Speicher. It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt at that moment. There was, of course, a tinge of sadness. Speicher was only 33 years old in January 1991, with his whole life in front of him. Like so many young men before him, he’d put on his country’s uniform and gone off to do its bidding – and not returned. During my tenure at DPMO, I took personally all 80,000 plus cases of those from wars dating back to World War II who did not return. But, I also felt elation. Happiness that his family finally had an answer to a nagging question that has troubled so many other American families, “what happened to my loved one? Where do his remains lie?” I was also happy that the gallant men and women of DPMO, the US agency charged with getting those answers, had stuck to their principles in the face of criticism and indifference, and had been proven right. I was also happy that yet again the American military had proven that it will ‘leave no man behind,’ and that when the job is too tough for others, just ‘send in the Marines.’
I was also happy that Michael Scott Speicher was finally the last casualty of the first Gulf War.
Causes Charles Ray Supports
The Nature Conservancy
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial