Procession, burial for Speicher in Jacksonville

(MILITARY TIMES)   The procession passed places important in Speicher’s life, including the church where he taught Sunday school, and the high school where he excelled at swimming and tennis.

Speicher graduated from Florida State University in 1980 with a business administration degree. The school’s $1.2 million Scott Speicher Tennis Complex was dedicated in 1993.

“Michael Scott Speicher paid the ultimate price for our freedom,” Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said.

For nearly two decades after the 33-year-old Speicher disappeared over the Iraq desert, his family pushed the Defense Department to find out what had happened. On Aug. 2, the Pentagon disclosed that Marines had recovered Speicher’s bones and skeletal fragments — enough for a positive identification.

Speicher, a Kansas City area native who moved to Florida as a teenager, will be laid to rest in a private ceremony at Jacksonville Memory Gardens.

His remains were flown Thursday to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, and the casket remained in a chapel on the base overnight.

Speicher’s widow and his children placed roses on his flag-draped casket on arrival. Sailors stood at attention.

Buddy Harris, who was Speicher’s best friend and who later married his widow, Joanne, accompanied the casket on the flight from Dover, Del., to Florida.

Defense officials originally declared Speicher killed in action hours after his plane was shot down over west-central Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced on television that Speicher was the first casualty of the Gulf War.

Ten years after the crash, the Navy changed Speicher’s 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 explained why.

Over the years, critics said the Navy had not done enough, particularly right after the crash, to search for the pilot.

The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments recently, and Speicher was identified by matching a jawbone and dental records and later by DNA reference samples from family members.

Many of the hundreds of people who line the route didn’t know Speicher but wanted to recognize his service.

“I’m here to recognize the sacrifice this young Navy officer gave to this country and the pain his family has endured for the last 18 years. I just got back from Iraq four months ago and I just wanted my family to be a part of it,” said Chief Warrant Officer Brian Farrell, an instructor pilot with the Florida National Guard, dressed in his Army uniform.

“We just want to honor our fallen hero, since he is from our area. We felt it was our duty to come and honor him and his family,” said Deborah Hudgins, who knew some of his family members.

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