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On the Homefront

The lost American

The hunt for pilot Scott Speicher consumes their lives, but his friends hope having U.S. troops in Iraq will bring news of him.

Published March 28, 2004

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher

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Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher

Jan 16, 1991: Speicher, piloting an F/A-18 Hornet from the carrier Saratoga, is apparently shot down by an Iraqi fighter jet during a bombing run over west-central Iraq. Dick Cheney, then defense secretary, announces at a press conference that he was killed, the first American casualty of the war. The Navy, however, lists his status as missing in action.

March 1991: The Iraqis give the United States 1.5 pounds of human flesh they say are the remains of a pilot named “Mickel,” but DNA tests prove it isn’t Speicher.

May 22, 1991: The Navy accepts the initial “finding of fact” that Speicher is dead and officially declares him killed in action. He posthumously will be promoted to captain.

July 4, 1992: In Jacksonville, Speicher’s wife, Joanne, marries Albert “Buddy” Harris Jr., a pilot and close friend of Speicher’s from the Navy. Harris has since become Speicher’s biggest advocate, regularly meeting with U.S. military officials.

December 1993: A senior military officer from Qatar, hunting in western Iraq, stumbles upon the remains of a U.S. jet. He takes pictures, including several that show the plane’s canopy had landed some distance from the plane, suggesting the pilot may have ejected. He gives the U.S. Embassy the photos and several parts of the plane, which is identified as Speicher’s.

April 1994: Acting on that information, a U.S. spy satellite photographs a “man-made symbol” at the crash site. Some military officials believe the symbol shows Speicher may have survived the crash.

Mid 1994: The U.S. military plans to send a covert team to the crash site. Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, vetoes the plan, saying it was too risky. The Pentagon instead asks the International Committee of the Red Cross for help.

March 1, 1995: The Red Cross reports that Iraq will cooperate, but bureaucratic problems in Iraq delay the trip.

December 1995: Accident specialists from the Defense Department and representatives from the Red Cross visit the crash site. They find it has been excavated, and find no ejection seat or bones. Bedouin nomads hand the team a flight uniform, which is later identified as likely Speicher’s. But Navy investigators find “minimal weathering and adherent soil,” leading them to believe the Iraqis planted the suit.
Tests also showed the suit -- and the pilot in it -- were probably not in the plane when it landed. That other evidence leads the Navy to believe Speicher likely ejected. Iraq maintains Speicher died in the crash or was eaten by wolves.

Jan. 11, 2001: President Clinton and the Navy change his status to missing in action, based on classified reports that indicate he ejected safely. There are unconfirmed reports from Iraq that he is in custody, that he walks with a limp and has facial scars.

Oct. 11, 2002: The Navy changes Speicher’s status to missing/captured, saying there’s no evidence the officer is dead. “While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down,” Navy Secretary Gordon England wrote in his explanation. “Further, it is my firm belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher.”

March 2002: Speicher’s classmates from the Forrest High School class of 1975 form Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher, to raise awareness about their friend and apply political pressure for answers from Iraq.

March 2003: The United States and Britain invade Iraq.

April 2003: U.S. troops, acting on a tip, find Speicher’s initials, MSS, on the wall of a cell in Hakmiyah prison in Baghdad. Informers tell the Associated Press he was kept there off and on in the mid 1990s.

June 2003: A team of military experts is assigned to look for Speicher or for evidence that he was ever held by the Iraqis. Speicher’s initials also are found on a post at another detention center.

March 1, 2004: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, sends Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a letter asking why he never authorized the $1-million reward for information about Speicher that Congress had authorized and funded last year. The letter urges Rumsfeld to reconsider. As of press time, Rumsfeld had not responded.

Sources: Wes Allison, St. Petersburg Times; Times files; Associated Press; March 2001 declassified Senate intelligence report.

JACKSONVILLE - They left frozen pizzas for their husbands and kids, left the bedtime stories to their wives, and hurried into the chilly evening to the red brick schoolhouse where their allegiances first were forged.

The past three decades have left their bodies a bit more lumpy, their worldviews a bit less rosy. But as they pulled plastic chairs around the faux wood tables in the brightly lit library at Nathan B. Forrest High School, members of the class of 1975 quickly renewed the intimacy that only time or shared suffering can bestow. They gathered to help an old friend, even as his country threatens to forget.

Nels Jensen waved a large foamboard placard before the group and asked everyone to sign it. On the front was a photograph of a uniformed Navy pilot with black, short-cropped hair who has long been missing in Iraq. "Free Scott Speicher," it said, and on the back: "No one left behind. Please don't leave our friend behind."

Jensen plans to send it to the White House, one of countless missives these friends have sent the government. It, too, they say, will likely go unanswered.

"When we first started, remember, I said pace yourselves, and likened it more to a marathon than a sprint," Jensen, vice president of Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher, told the group before the ending prayer. "But folks, we're rounding that last bend and the finish line is in sight. . . . Deep down in my heart I know and I believe he's alive."

A little later, the friends filtered back into the night, buoyed for the moment by shared resolve and a new plan to send fliers with Speicher's picture to every soldier serving in Iraq. But Jensen, rangy and soft-spoken, fretted that the chances of finding Speicher will fade as the United States cedes control to a new Iraqi government this summer.

"This is the window, while we're still in Iraq," he said.

This was supposed to be the year for Capt. Scott Speicher, the U.S. Navy pilot missing since he was shot down over Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in January 1991.

He initially was declared killed in action, the first American lost in the war. He's still the only American missing in action from that conflict. A decade later - long after his wife married one of his best friends, long after his stark marble headstone was planted at Arlington - intelligence reports and other evidence prompted the U.S. government to reclassify Speicher as missing.

In 2001, the Navy changed his status again, to missing and captured.

Friends, family and his backers on Capitol Hill thought the invasion of Iraq last spring and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's secretive regime would finally lead them to Speicher, or at least to the truth behind what had become of him.

During the war, every day seemed to move them closer. But one year later, with little to show and concerns that the government isn't doing all it can, they worry every day moves them further away.

* * *

Jensen often thinks of Speicher when he's taking a shower; he wonders how long his friend has gone without one. Jim Stafford felt a pang of guilt as he cooked a Brunswick stew loaded with potatoes, chicken and lima beans - "anything you'd need to survive" - because he couldn't shake the thought of what Speicher was probably eating, and how sorry it probably was.

Friends say they think about him when they cast for spotted trout in the tidal creeks around Jacksonville, or grill a steak and crack a beer, or watch their children play, or gather with family for Thanksgiving. They pray for him daily.

Eva Tinc, another high school friend, couldn't get Speicher off her mind as she recently watched The Passion of the Christ: "It occurred to me that Scott was also 33 in that same land, and he's been through probably the same treatment at their hands for 13 years. It made it very intense."

For two long years, they and other friends from Forrest High School have formed the nucleus of Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher, writing letters to congressional leaders, the Pentagon and the White House, attending rallies and parades, selling "Free Scott Speicher" stickers, T-shirts and steel POW bracelets engraved with his name.

They started the group in March 2001, when Speicher's status was changed to missing-captured. Unable to stand the thought of him spending the next decade in an Iraqi prison, they took $600 from the class reunion fund and sent letters to 300 classmates, seeking political and financial support.

For some, the past two years have approached overwhelming. A core group of about half-dozen classmates have spent every holiday but Thanksgiving and Christmas promoting the hunt for Speicher at veterans events. Stafford, an avid fisherman, has all but abandoned fishing. His monthly cell phone bill can hit $700 when he's coordinating events. For Jensen, who works rotating 12-hour shifts as a metallurgist at a local steel mill, Friends has become a second job, often consuming 40 hours a week.

Jensen and Stafford figure Friends has sponsored nearly 20 events, and taken part in 30 more. The inner circle has expanded to include several people who never met Speicher, including veterans, friends of friends and those who simply believe America should do more to account for every soldier it sends into combat.

In January, a vigil in Washington drew more than 100 supporters from across the country. A forum on the group's Web site, has more than 100 regular participants. Jacksonville police cars fly yellow ribbons on their antennae, fire trucks sport Free Scott bumper stickers.

Stafford, tall and sturdy, tugged at his own POW bracelet. "I had a girl at church ask me, "When you going to stop wearing that thing?' I said, I hope I quit wearing it soon."

For all their determination, they often find themselves fighting frustration.

When Speicher was shot down, the military never sent a rescue crew to look for him, deeming it too dangerous, especially because fellow pilots thought his plane had exploded.

In the mid 1990s, when rumors of Speicher's possible survival first surfaced, covert operations to examine the crash site were scrapped. Diplomatic attempts to confirm Speicher's capture failed. Iraq has maintained Speicher died the night of his crash.

When confronted with evidence he likely ejected safely, such as the condition of his seat, Iraqi officials have suggested he was eaten by wolves.

For the most part, the war has unearthed little to suggest the Iraqis still have him, but investigators have found two key pieces of evidence that suggest Speicher at least was captured alive: Last summer, acting on a tip from a friendly Iraqi, U.S. soldiers found the initials MSS - perhaps for Michael Scott Speicher - on the wall of a prison cell in Baghdad.

Late last year, soldiers found another set of MSS initials on the post of a carport at a detention center near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, an aide to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told the St. Petersburg Times last week.

The post is being analyzed by the FBI.

What keeps the Friends going is a strong faith that Speicher would do the same for them, as well as raw patriotism. While the searchers have found no evidence Speicher is still alive, his friends gamely note they've found no evidence that he's dead, either.

"We'd be hypocritical if we gave up on Scott," said Stafford, 47, a classmate and president of Friends. "One thing we said all along is, If there's a 1 percent chance that Scott's alive, a 1 percent chance, and we do nothing, then what are we good for?"

In the 1975 yearbook, Stafford's photo is just three down from Speicher's. Both are smiling, good-looking kids with thick, sweeping hair and black tuxedos with oversized bows.

Just as Jacksonville 30 years ago was a Navy town, Forrest was a Navy school, flanked by the Naval Air Station and Cecil Field, and the roar of Navy jets was as ubiquitous as the class bell. Like Speicher and Stafford, most of their classmates were Navy or Marine brats.

By all accounts, Speicher was mature for his years and supremely kind, never one to poke fun at others, and he made close friends as soon as he arrived his junior year. He was a varsity swimmer and a male mascot for the Keyettes, the girls' version of the Key Club.

"I don't care what circle you moved in - the jocks, the hoods . . . - everybody knew Scott," said Leslie Amidon, a classmate at Forrest and at Florida State University.

The last time any of them saw Scott Speicher was a muggy Saturday night in August of 1990, three days before his aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, left Jacksonville for the Middle East. It was their 15-year high school reunion, held in the ballroom of the old Days Inn on Jacksonville Beach.

Speicher recently had been assigned to Jacksonville, so most hadn't seen him in years, or met his wife, Joanne. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl who now are teenagers, and Speicher taught Sunday school at Lake Shore United Methodist Church, not far from Forrest High.

Stafford talked to Speicher at the reunion about his upcoming mission. War with Iraq was looming in August 1990, and Stafford looked Speicher in the eye and thanked him for what he was about to do.

"Here we were, two guys, 30-something, hadn't seen each other but a few times in 15 years, talking like that together," Stafford recalled. "He said, "I appreciate it.' And I knew in his heart he did."

* * *

Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher meets one evening a month in the Forrest High library. On a wet, chilly evening two week ago, about 25 people came to plot strategy and discuss developments. The latest is Operation Free Spike, a plan to raise money to send flyers to all U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq.

They also plan to distribute Arabic versions to the Iraqis.

Speicher would be 46 now. The flyers feature a digitally enhanced picture that suggests what he might look like: thin and a little grayer, with a slight beard.

Meanwhile, Cindy Laquidara, an attorney for Speicher's ex-wife and her husband, recently sent a letter to Sen. Nelson and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She complained that intelligence officials aren't doing enough to pry word of Speicher from captured Iraqi officials, and she asked for direct access to those officials so she can quiz them herself.

Nelson said Saddam Hussein has been asked about Speicher, but he has provided no clues.

The flyers advertise a $1-million reward for information leading to Speicher's return. Congress appropriated the reward money last year, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declined so far to offer it. Speicher's friends are angry and confused.

Rumsfeld's inaction also has angered Speicher's supporters in Congress. On March 1, Nelson sent the defense secretary a letter asking him to reconsider offering the reward and seeking an explanation. Rumsfeld sent a note last week saying an aide would be in touch, but he offered nothing else.

This month, Friends discussed contacting NASCAR drivers to see whether they'll put "Free Scott Speicher" stickers on their race cars and whether their crews will wear Speicher T-shirts. They talked about asking Lynyrd Skynyrd, the legendary Southern rock band from Jacksonville, to hold a benefit concert.

The meeting closed with a prayer, and Raymond Johnson sang Lee Greenwood's patriotic hit, God Bless the USA. Then everyone signed Jensen's placard, to send to the White House.

They don't expect much from it, but figure it can't hurt. They consider sending one to Rumsfeld, too, although leaders say the Defense Department has never responded to the group's letters or phone calls.

Most of their insight about the investigation comes from Albert "Buddy" Harris Jr., a close Navy friend who married Speicher's wife, Joanne, a year and a half after Speicher was declared dead, and before there was any indication he might be alive. Through his attorney, he denied repeated requests for an interview.

Harris, a commercial airline pilot, has been a vocal advocate for the search for Speicher, and he gets regular updates from U.S. intelligence officials.

* * *

On a raw morning earlier this month, the day after the Friends' March meeting, Stafford pushed aside his plate of eggs and country biscuits and laid two envelopes on the table.

When Speicher's ship had sailed, back in 1990, Stafford called Joanne for his address, and he and Speicher began a brief but robust correspondence. Speicher sent news of life aboard a warship and testaments to his faith in God and country. Stafford sent him news about his beloved FSU football team, and any bad news he could find about the University of Florida Gators.

On the table this morning were his last two letters to Speicher, stamped Return to Sender by Navy mail handlers. Speicher was already presumed dead by the time they reached the Saratoga, and Stafford keeps them sealed as tight as the day they were mailed. After 13 years, he still hopes to deliver them.

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