BAGHDAD — The Defense Department said Sunday that it's identified the remains of Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot who's been missing since he was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War.
The development ends 18 years of uncertainty for Speicher's family and for the military. A large base in Tikrit, Iraq, is named after him.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain Speicher's family for the ultimate sacrifice he made for his country," said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. "I am also extremely grateful to all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last 18 years to bring Captain Speicher home."
The 33-year-old Speicher, who lived in Jacksonville, Fla., was stationed on the USS Saratoga when he served in the Gulf War.
The military has struggled to find Speicher since his FA-18 Hornet went down on Jan. 17, 1991. The Pentagon declared him killed in action as the Gulf War ended in May 1991, but changed his status several times over the years to reflect the possibility that he might've survived the crash and been captured.
Still, he remained missing even after the U.S. military overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime and could search the crash site unencumbered.
In 2004, Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, reported that an Iraqi exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi gave the Bush administration and U.S. news organizations exaggerated and fabricated intelligence on Iraq, including that Speicher was seen alive in Baghdad in 1998. The Navy said at the time that it had no evidence that Speicher was ever held in captivity.
Knight Ridder reported that the Bush administration used alleged sightings of Speicher, some supplied by Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, to help bolster the case for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.
A break in the effort to find Speicher came in early July, when an Iraqi approached Marines who visited what was thought to be the site of Speicher's crash in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
The Iraqi told Marines he knew two others who saw Speicher's plane go down, and witnessed Bedouins bury his remains nearby. One of the Iraqis led the Marines to the site, where they found bones and skeletal fragments.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., matched the jawbone at the site to Speicher's dental records. More tests are taking place at the institute's DNA lab, the Defense Department said.
In 1995, the Pentagon worked with the International Committee for the Red Cross with the consent of Saddam Hussein to search for Speicher's remains. A report from that effort the following year led the Navy to conclude that he'd died in the crash.
The Navy in 2001 changed his status to "missing in action," reflecting hope that he'd survived. It was adjusted in 2002 to identify him as "missing-captured," and again in March to declare him "missing in action."
"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, the chief of naval operations.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who championed the search for Speicher since his disappearance, said his prayers were with the late pilot's family. He called him a "true American hero" and praised the military for never giving up on him.
(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee. David Goldstein in Washington contributed to this article.)
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