WASHINGTON — Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991 and it was there where he apparently was buried by Bedouins, the sand hiding him from the world's mightiest military all these years.
In a sorrowful resolution to the nearly two-decade-old question about his fate, the Pentagon disclosed Sunday it had received new information this past month from an Iraqi citizen that led Marines to recover bones and skeletal fragments — enough for a positive identification.
Shot down over west-central Iraq on a combat mission in his FA-18 Hornet on Jan. 17, 1991, Speicher was declared killed by the Pentagon hours later. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war.
But 10 years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he ever was in captivity. More reviews followed, without definitive answers.
The family Speicher left behind, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., continued to press for the military to do more. A high school classmate who helped form the group "Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher" said Sunday his biggest fear was that Speicher had been taken alive and tortured.
"This whole thing has been so surreal for all of the people who have known Scott," said Nels Jensen, 52, who now lives in Arkansas.
Jensen said the group was frustrated the military didn't initially send a search and rescue team after the crash, and then grew more perplexed as reports of his possible capture emerged. "Never again will our military likely not send out a search and rescue party for a downed serviceman," Jensen said.
To the top Navy officer, the discovery is evidence of the military's commitment to bring its troops home. "Our Navy will never give up looking for a shipmate, regardless of how long or how difficult that search may be," said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations.
Over the years, critics contended the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for the 33-year-old Speicher. A lieutenant commander when he went missing, Speicher later reached the rank of captain because he kept receiving promotions while his status was unknown.
Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned on Saturday that Speicher's remains had been found. "The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with our request" to not abandon the search, she said. "We will be bringing him home."
Laquidara said the family would say more after being briefed by defense officials; she did not know when that would be.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. Speicher's family — including two college-age children who were toddlers when he disappeared — believed more evidence would surface as Iraq grew more stable.
A number of new leads did come up, including the discovery of what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison. More than 50 sites were checked by military search crews in the months after the invasion — hospitals, prisons, security archives, homes and the original site where Speicher's plane crashed, about 100 miles north of the Saudi Arabian border.
Crews first visited the site in 1995. They found wings, the canopy and unexploded ordnance, but the cockpit and Speicher were missing.
Investigators excavated a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, tracked down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and made numerous other inquiries.
Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in the western province of Anbar to visit a location in the desert that was believed to be the crash site. The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.
"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Capt. Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.
The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp. He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.
Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.
While dental records have confirmed the remains to be those of Speicher, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them with DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, conveyed condolences to Speicher's family in a statement from Baghdad. "Although we cannot fully understand the sense of loss, or the pain his family has shouldered throughout the years of waiting, we hope they can find solace in his dignified and honorable return home," he said.
Last year, then-Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks prisoners of war and service members missing in action.
Many in the military believed for years that Speicher had not survived the crash or for long after. Intelligence had never found evidence he was alive, and some officials felt last year that all leads had been exhausted and Speicher would finally be declared killed.
But after the latest review, Winter said Speicher would remain classified as missing, despite Winter's strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead.
Announcing his decision, Winter criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged, saying the board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.