Remains of the first American lost in the 1991 Persian Gulf War have been found in the Anbar province of Iraq after a nearly 20-year search, the U.S. Navy said Sunday.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology has positively identified the remains of Captain Michael "Scott" Speicher, whose disappearance has bedeviled investigators since his jet was shot down over the Iraq desert on the first night of the 1991 war.
The Navy said the discovery illustrates the military's commitment to bring its troops home.
"This is a testament to how the Navy never stops looking for one of its own. No matter how long it takes," Commander Cappy Surette, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy, told FOX News.
Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, added, "we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Captain Speicher and his family for the sacrifice they have made for our nation and the example of strength they have set for all of us."
The Pentagon initially declared Speicher killed, but uncertainty — and the lack of remains — led officials over the years to change his official status a number of times to "missing in action" and later "missing-captured."
Family spokeswoman Cindy Laquidara said relatives learned on Saturday that Speicher's remains had been found.
"The family's proud of the way the Defense Department continued on with our request" to not abandon the search for the downed pilot, she said. "We will be bringing him home."
Laquidara said the family would have another statement after being briefed by the defense officials, but she didn't know when that would be.
"My heart goes out to the family, again," said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida senator who was instrumental several years ago in getting the Navy to renew a search for the missing pilot. "We all clung to the slim hope that Scott was still alive and would one day come home to his family."
After years, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq finally gave investigators the chance to search inside Iraq. And it led to a number of leads, including what some believed were the initials "MSS" scratched into the wall of an Iraqi prison.
The search also led investigators to excavate a potential grave site in Baghdad in 2005, track down Iraqis said to have information about Speicher and make numerous other inquiries in what officials say has been an exhaustive search.
Officials said Sunday that they got new information from an Iraqi citizen in early July, leading Marines stationed in Anbar province to a location in the desert which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher's jet.
The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert.
"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Pentagon said in a statement.
He was positively identified through a jawbone found at the site and dental records, said Read Adm. Frank Thorp.
Speicher was shot down over west-central Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.
Hours after his plane went down, the Pentagon publicly declared him killed — then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty of the war. But 10 years later, the Navy changed his status to missing in action, citing an absence of evidence that Speicher had died. In October 2002, the Navy switched his status to "missing/captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he ever was in captivity.
Another review was done in 2005 with information gleaned after Baghdad fell. The review board recommended then that the Pentagon work with the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government to "increase the level of attention and effort inside Iraq" to resolve the question of Speicher's fate.
Last year, then Navy Secretary Donald Winter ordered yet another review of the case after receiving a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks prisoners of war and service members missing in action. Many in the military believed for years that Speicher had not survived the crash or for long after; intelligence had never found evidence he was alive, and some officials felt last year that all leads had been exhausted and Speicher would finally be declared killed.
But after the latest review, Winter said Speicher would remain classified as missing, despite his strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he was dead. Announcing his decision, Winter criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged, saying the review board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.
Speicher's family — including two college-age children who were toddlers when Speicher disappeared — believed more evidence would surface as Iraq became more stable.