- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Soldiers who remain missing in action, even long after the war they fought ended, are an open wound that never heals entirely. But prisoners of war usually come home. Some, such as those who survived the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" in Vietnam, do so after horrific mistreatment by their captors. Last Friday, as American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were again leaving their homes and families to deploy for a likely war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Navy Secretary Gordon England signed a memo changing the status of Navy pilot Michael "Scott" Speicher from "missing in action" to "missing/captured." If then-Lt. Cmdr. Speicher (since promoted to captain) is still alive, that day was about two weeks shy of his 4,300th day in captivity.
Capt. Speicher was flying an F/A-18 when he was shot down Jan. 17, 1991 the first day of the air war. Originally, he was classified missing in action. In May 1991, his family went through the agony of hearing that he had been declared "killed in action/body not recovered." Four years later, investigators from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Navy and the Army excavated the site where Capt. Speicher's aircraft crashed, and came back with disturbing evidence that he might still be alive. Only last year, then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig changed Capt. Speicher's status back to missing in action. Now, Mr. England in what may be an unprecedented action has again changed Capt. Speicher's status to one that says that, if he is alive, he is, and has been for nearly 12 years, a prisoner in Iraq.
Mr. England's memo relies, as did Mr. Danzig, on evidence from the 1995 investigation. First, investigators found that Capt. Speicher had ejected before the crash. Ninety percent of the pilots who eject from F/A-18s survive. Second, a flight suit found near the crash site that appeared to be Capt. Speicher's showed that the wearer was not in the aircraft when it crashed. Third, the International Committee of the Red Cross found that the crash site had been "expertly excavated" before they arrived, and that all significant cockpit debris had been removed. Fourth, "The cumulative information received since Capt. Speicher was shot down continues to suggest strongly that the government of Iraq can account for him," Mr. England's memo says.
The memo also says that Mr. England has no evidence to conclude that Capt. Speicher is dead. More than once, his memo implies that there is reason to believe Capt. Speicher is alive. Iraq, as it has shown in decades of war and oppression, is capable of the most bestial treatment of its prisoners. We may never know what happened to him. But if Scott Speicher is alive, he has survived longer than any prisoner of war of whom we are aware. America has a sacred duty to every one of its fighting men and women. If Capt. Speicher can be brought home alive, we should spare no effort to do so.


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