18 years later, Navy pilot, the first casualty of Gulf War, is laid to rest in Fla.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher, the long-missing first casualty of the first Gulf War, was finally laid to rest yesterday in his adopted hometown as thousands of people lined the streets to watch the funeral procession pass his school, church, and military base.
Speicher was shot down in 1991 on the first night of the Gulf War. For more than 18 years, no one knew whether he was killed or being held prisoner in Iraq until his remains were discovered in the desert, west of Baghdad, last month.
“Eighteen years, six months, and 11 days, that needs to be a record that is never broken,’’ said Buddy Harris, a former Navy pilot and friend who accompanied Speicher’s body home to Jacksonville from Dover, Del. Harris married Speicher’s widow, Joanne, and helped raise Speicher’s son and daughter, plus two more children with Joanne.
Motorcycles, their red and blue lights flashing, led Speicher’s hearse and family following in a limousine along a 30-mile route of sites special to Speicher.
At a monument for war veterans where Speicher’s name was engraved in 1995, military officials, Governor Charlie Crist, and Jacksonville’s mayor talked about his service. Dozens of roses were placed against the wall, where an eternal flame burns. Later, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office fired a three-volley salute.
The motorcade traveled to Lake Shore United Methodist Church, where Speicher taught Sunday School. It rolled past Nathan B. Forrest High School, where he excelled at swimming and tennis.
Hundreds of people gathered at each of the locations, including the site of the former Cecil Field Naval Air Station where Speicher’s squadron, the Sunliners, was based before he left on the USS Saratoga for the Gulf War.
Speicher, a Kansas City-area native who moved to Florida as a teenager, was buried in a private ceremony at Jacksonville Memory Gardens. Four Navy planes flew over the cemetery in the missing man formation.
For nearly two decades after the 33-year-old Speicher disappeared over the Iraq desert, his family pushed the Defense Department to find out what had happened. On Aug. 2, the Pentagon disclosed that Marines had recovered Speicher’s bones and skeletal fragments.
Defense officials originally declared Speicher killed in action hours after his plane was shot down over west-central Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced on television that Speicher was the first casualty of the Gulf War.
Ten years after the crash, the Navy changed Speicher’s 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 never explained why.