Washington: The remains of the first American lost in the Persian Gulf War have been found in Iraq, the military said on Sunday, after struggling for nearly two decades with the question of whether he was dead or alive.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has positively identified the remains of Navy Captain Michael "Scott" Speicher, whose disappearance has bedevilled investigators since his fighter jet was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the 1991 war.
The top Navy officer said the discovery illustrates 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. "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."
The Pentagon initially declared Speicher killed, but uncertainty — and the lack of remains — led officials over the years to change his official status a number of times to "missing in action" and later "missing-captured”.
After years, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. And it led to a number of leads, including what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison.
The search also led investigators to excavate a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, track down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and make numerous other inquiries in what officials say has been an exhaustive search.
Officials said on Sunday that they got new information from an Iraqi citizen in early July, leading Marines stationed in Anbar province to a location in the desert which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher`s FA-18 Hornet.
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 Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defence Department said in a statement.
He was positively identified through a jawbone found at the site and dental records, said Read Admiral Frank Thorp.
He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher.
While dental records have confirmed the remains to be those of Speicher, the pathology institute in Rockville, Md., is running DNA tests on the remains recovered and comparing them to DNA reference samples previously provided by family members.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher`s family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in the Pentagon statement. "I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home."
Speicher was shot down flying a combat mission over west-central Iraq on January 17, 1991.
Last year, former Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered yet another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defence 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 and some 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 his strong reservations about the pilot`s status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead. Announcing his decision, Winter criticised the board`s recommendation to leave Speicher`s status unchanged, saying the review 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.
Speicher`s family had pressed to continue searching. The family, from outside Jacksonville, Fla. — including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared — believed more evidence would surface as Iraq becomes more stable.
"There are people that know," Buddy Harris, a former Navy commander and a close friend of Speicher`s who has since married Speicher`s ex-wife, said at that time. "It`s just a matter of getting to them."