[Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher was a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot from VFA-81–the “Sunliners.” His aircraft was destroyed in flight on the first not of Operation Desert Storm, making him the first combat casualty. It was a long-held theory his jet was downed by a surface-to-air missile, or SAM. The more likely scenario is he was shot down by an Iraqi Air Force MiG-25PD “Foxbat.” Posthumously promoted to the rank of Captain, Spike was awarded the Purple Heart. We take a moment to revisit his story.]
Meghan Wagner knows what the term “Alive Day” means to veterans. It means a lifestyle change so immense that some people don’t know what to do next. It means an injury so severe that continuing a life serving their country is no longer an option. But it also means a second chance at living, and what she does helps get veterans’ lives back on track.
Her father was in the Navy, and his story is well-known in Northeast Florida and across the nation. [Yesterday] marks 25 years since Michael Scott Speicher was shot down on the first day of Operation Desert Storm. Wagner was 3 years old on that first day of the five-week war.
She never saw her father alive again. Now she sees him in the smiling faces of the men and women she helps at her job with the Soldier Ride program of the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville.
“I definitely think he would be proud,” Wagner said. “He very well could have been a Wounded Warrior, and even though I haven’t put on the uniform it’s my way of giving back.”
Wagner’s brother, Michael Speicher, 26, followed in his father’s footsteps and is serving as a Navy intelligence officer deployed in Japan. He could not comment, but Wagner said the two remain very close and she looks forward to his return to Jacksonville in a few months. The brother and sister, along with their mother, Joanne, were left with a lot of questions after the rock of their family was shot down in Iraq.
A BLURRY TIMELINE
Even after 25 years and the comfort that came with the return of Speicher’s remains, the timeline of events that led to his death remains blurry.
What is known is that on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm, a 33-year-old Speicher took off in his FA-18 Hornet from the Mayport Naval Station-based USS Saratoga as part of the VFA-81 Sunliners squadron assigned to begin an air assault against Iraq President Saddam Hussein. Speicher, a graduate of Forrest High School and Florida State University who was known for teaching Sunday school at his church, never returned. His fighter jet was shot out of the sky by enemy fire, eventually landing in the sands of an Iraq desert.
That’s when the finer details of the timeline go out of focus.
In the hours after Speicher went down, Dick Cheney, then the U.S. defense secretary, went on television to lament the first U.S. casualty in the Persian Gulf War. Speicher was officially declared dead in May 1991 after originally being listed as missing in action because his remains had not been found. However, the U.S. government later reconsidered that determination, and his status fluctuated over the better part of the next two decades.
During that time, many theories were offered about what happened.
Were pictures taken several years after he was shot down showing a U.S. jet with a plane canopy away from the crash site proof Speicher ejected? Did the “MSS” initials on a Baghdad prison wall offer hope Speicher, at least for some time, was still alive and taken prisoner by the Iraqi government? Was the truth something different altogether, or was Cheney’s initial conclusion correct, that Speicher actually was the first American casualty of the war?
The answer, to this day, depends who is asked.
But in early August 2009, one chapter of the tragedy closed when Iraqi civilians led U.S. Marines to a desert grave that held remains later determined to be Speicher’s. Across the world, the discovery offered a sense of bittersweet relief. Speicher’s body was returned to the First Coast a couple of weeks later to a community more than ready to embrace him.
Speicher was laid to rest at Jacksonville Memory Gardens before a small, private gathering. However, that was only after the city had a chance to thank its fallen son. A plane carrying Speicher’s body landed at Jacksonville Naval Air Station on Aug. 13, 2009, and was greeted by hundreds of sailors and civilians who lined the streets.
“There’s no greater honor than to honor one of our own,” Cmdr. Rob Surgeoner told the Times-Union that day.
“I just hope he rests easy finally,” retired Chief Petty Officer John Moody said through tears.
Other spots around town also saw many grieving people come together. Some waited for Speicher’s funeral procession along Bay Street or at Forrest High School, and others watched his hearse roll by from the Veterans Memorial Wall or Cecil Field. At Lake Shore United Methodist Church, where Speicher listened to sermons as a member and taught local youth on Sunday mornings, a memorial built in his honor in 1991 was adorned with flowers.
“Scott and his family have etched themselves on the hearts of the members of this church,” the Rev. Thomas Fuller said at the time.
One of Speicher’s closest friends, Buddy Harris, is now married to Speicher’s widow, Joanne, and he helped raise Michael and Meghan. Harris has also worked for years to ensure their father didn’t die in vain.
“It brought a huge relief to bring him home in 2009, but his story is not done,” Harris said.
He said Speicher’s death ignited policy changes throughout the military – especially pertaining to searching for fallen personnel – but the family still patiently waits for more answers from the ongoing investigation.
The original story in the Florida Times-Union can be found here.
(Featured Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leah Stiles/Released)