- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In the first hours of the Gulf War, he flew his F-18 into the night skies from the deck of the USS Saratoga, never to return, and never to be found. His airplane was struck by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile.

U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher was the first American casualty of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 - but his disappearance was anything but conclusive.

Over the years, Capt. Speicher’s status was listed as killed in action, body not recovered; missing in action; and missing/captured. Now it has changed for a fourth time.

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On Tuesday, Navy Secretary Donald Winter reverted Capt. Speicher’s status to missing in action - countering a recent recommendation by a status review board that the pilot still could be held by enemy forces. But Mr. Winter did not close the case, either.

“My review of the board proceedings and the compelling evidence presented by the intelligence community causes me great concern about the reliability of the board’s recommendation,” Mr. Winter said.

He questioned the review board’s conclusions about Capt. Speicher’s ejection from his aircraft and the lack of physical evidence or emergency radio transmissions that could indicate he survived that night.

“There is currently no credible evidence that Captain Speicher is ‘captured.’ For Captain Speicher to be in captivity today, one would have to accept a massive conspiracy of silence and perfectly executed deception that has lasted for over 18 years and that continues today,” Mr. Winter said.

He has ordered another review of the situation within the next year. Meanwhile, the U.S. is not abandoning the pilot as a matter of policy.

“Absolutely, we will continue to search for him. We have 88,000 missing service members from all conflicts. It is a top priority to bring them home. Captain Speicher is an American hero, and returning him to his family and country will also remain a top priority for the Navy and the nation,” said Lt. Sean Robertson, a Navy spokesman.

“This is neither good news nor bad news,” said Cindy Laquidara, spokeswoman for the Speicher family, who said she was somewhat “puzzled” by the decision.

“We’re still optimistic. We want Captain Speicher back - or his remains. And we look forward to working with the Navy to resolve this in the foreseeable future. There was evidence Captain Speicher was in captivity, and there are still those who may know what happened. Every time we’ve had active-duty personnel go searching for him, they have brought us good and valuable information,” Ms. Laquidara said.

“They are very good at what they do,” she added.

A native of Jacksonville, Fla., and the son of a World War II-era pilot, Capt. Speicher was 33 when he disappeared, leaving behind a wife and two small children.

The dramatic and often poignant details or speculations about his fate have surfaced frequently in the form of intelligence reports, official investigations and hearsay. The mix included a report that the initials “MSS” were found in 2004, carved in the wooden beam of a Baghdad prison. Other claims said he had been shot down by a MiG fighter, and that his flight suit had been found with his name cut out of the front of it.

In 2008, Capt. Speicher’s children - now adults - urged the Navy to continue the search, suggesting that the efforts could help set a standard for future investigations of missing troops and airmen.

“This change in status will have no effect on the ongoing search to determine Scott’s fate,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has pushed the Navy to re-examine Capt. Speicher’s status since 2002. Earlier this year, he accused the U.S. government of “walking away from a downed pilot.”

“As our presence in Iraq decreases, we need to take this last opportunity to determine his fate,” Mr. Nelson said. “This is our duty as a nation to any missing service member.”

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