It was the first night of the Gulf War, January 17, 1991. Members of the F-18 fighter squadron VFA-81 -- "The Sunliners" -- launched off the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga in the Red Sea. Five pilots headed out on a mission into enemy territory. Only four would return.
There are many questions regarding what happened that night; some are still unanswered. One fact is known -- it was the last flight for Captain Michael Scott Speicher. Speicher did not return to the flight deck of the Saratoga, nor did he make it to one of the divert fields in Saudi Arabia.
Now, 12 years later, family and friends are hoping "Spike," as he was affectionately known, is still alive, and will soon be brought home.
Barry Hull was one of Speicher's squadron mates, and the last person to see Scott on that fateful night. He says, "Speicher was a fantastic pilot. He had lots of experience in the F-18 Hornet because he was an instructor. He was really good in the jet ... He was also a very tough guy. He was very tough mentally and physically, yet at the same time he was one of the nicest guys you ever wanted to meet, everybody liked him, he was just an all-around great guy."
Hull and the rest of the Sunliners who launched that night headed for a refueling tanker before flying into Iraq. He was the second-last to leave, and dropped back a little and flew up above the last Hornet and looked down into the cockpit. Hull didn't know it at the time, but after putting the pieces together later, realized it was Speicher's jet he had been watching. That was the last time anyone would see Spike for a long time.
Initial reports from the U.S. government suggested Speicher died after his F-18 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Hull thinks it was shot down by a Mig-25 that was in the area that night. Speicher was listed as killed in action, body not recovered.
However, several years later, the crash site was found in the middle of the Iraqi desert. It was determined that Speicher probably survived the ejection and was possibly being held captive by the brutal regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. There were reports from an Iraqi defector that he had been ordered to take a downed American pilot to a hospital on the first night of the Gulf War. His story turned out to be credible.
The U.S. government believed the new evidence was good enough to change Speicher's status to "Missing in Action" in 2001, something that has never happened in the history of the U.S. military. It was changed again in 2002, this time to "Prisoner of War, Missing, Captured."
There were more reported sightings of Speicher being moved through Baghdad in the weeks before Operation Iraqi Freedom began in mid-March of 2003. Recently, the initials "M.S.S.," believed to stand for "Michael Scott Speicher," were found scrawled on the walls of an Iraqi prison cell.
For squadron mate Hull, finding out Spike may have survived the ejection came as a shock. There is a creed in the military: "No one gets left behind." He says, "I got a call from one of my Navy buddies telling me they had found the crash site and it appeared to have a good ejection. Up until that point, I had come to terms with the fact that Spike was dead, end of story ... Well now we know that he survived and is either still alive or they killed him and we left him there. Now we have this obligation to go and find him and bring him home, dead or alive."
Hull says he's excited about the chances of finding Scott now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, but he also tries to keep things in perspective. "I've tried to put it in context, because I was just on this emotional roller coaster ride. Every time I heard something, I just assumed it was what it appeared to be, and then I would find out that's really not the case ... I try to keep steady with this and hope that it will come to some sort of conclusion soon."
The 12-year ordeal has been tough on Speicher's family. He left behind a wife, Joanne, and two children. She has since remarried and had two more children. Joanne's current husband, Albert "Buddy" Harris, is a former Navy pilot. Both continue to push the government to find Scott.
Family spokesperson, lawyer Cindy Lacquidara, says they are continuing to get new information through a liaison at the Pentagon. She says, "We (the family) all have secret-level clearance. We are kept informed far beyond anything that is out publicly."
Lacquidara says they are convinced Speicher is still alive. "In late 1997/98, we received very credible intelligence information that Scott was alive and driven to Baghdad, and that was the defining moment. From that point forward, the team that was assembled to investigate got better intelligence and information."
Lacquidara is confident Scott will be located and brought home. "I am confident that this country is capable of doing so. The commitment was made to our servicemen and women that we won't leave them behind. That is what we believe in and will follow through on. Certainly we have the assets to bring it to conclusion."
A group of Speicher's high-school classmates have formed a group to keep his story in the public eye. Friends Working to Free Scott Speicher is trying to keep the story in the media, hoping to keep the search a top priority. Friend Jim Stafford says the media is their greatest tool. "I would like to see every media outlet, every night, do a report on Scott. This is a man who, through no fault of his own, spent 12 years in prisons over there." Stafford is unhappy with the circumstances surrounding Speicher's disappearance. "It is just unfathomable, the disservice our country has done this man. This guy took orders to go into combat and he did his job. He was shot down and basically hung out to dry." Stafford feels new efforts to find Scott are heading in the right direction. The group already has plans for a homecoming once Speicher is found.
Squadron mate Barry Hull is no longer in the Navy. He now owns a chain of stores called "Sunliner Tire and Auto," named after his old squadron. Hull says there are days he wishes he could go into Iraq himself and look for his old friend. He says, "It's very frustrating just sitting on the sidelines and waiting and waiting, hoping that one day I'll be watching the news and find out they've located Spike. The waiting -- sometimes it's overwhelming."