Welcome Home Scott Speicher
I’ve just returned from saying “Welcome Home” and “May you rest in eternal peace” to Scott Speicher. His remains returned home this afternoon after more than 18 years of uncertainty.
I knew Scott, but we were not really friends. We are the same age, we had mutual friends and our children were pre-school classmates, but we were only acquaintances. Still, I can vividly remember my feelings upon discovering he had been shot down and was missing on the first night of Desert Storm. Those memories flooded back this evening as I sat quietly for a few moments in the Chapel at Naval Air Station Jacksonville where he is temporarily resting. I went merely to pay my respects but wound up thrown into an emotional trip back in time.
I have very clear memories of that day on which our Operations changed from Desert Shield to Desert Storm. Sitting in the wardroom that morning at breakfast we all sensed a different, and a charged atmosphere. I’d say exhilaration was the dominant feeling. After months on station and after years and years training for the possibility of being sent into combat, there was an exhilarating but anxious atmosphere surrounding the Aviators about to be thrown into battle.
While everyone expected to perform well under the supreme test of flying under fire, I can confidently say that everyone also had that nagging fear… not about being killed… but the fear of making a mistake and letting someone else down. Living with a mistake that caused someone else to die is much worse than the fear of death. But THAT fear, the fear of letting a friend down, was suppressed and never expressed, everyone feels its presence but exhilaration dominates. But even amid all of the supremely confident Naval Aviators, there were the other unuttered thoughts… which of our shipmates would not be there for the following morning’s breakfast.
The aircraft heading on that first strike launched early that evening to fly a bit of a circuitous route and having to hit the tankers on the way for fuel. It would be a long flight from the Red Sea, on to their targets in Iraq and then back to the Carrier in the Red Sea. Again there was exhilaration as the aircraft were manned. I had scheduled myself to fly as the airborne Search and Rescue Helo during the recovery in the wee hours of the next morning after the strikes, so I was a spectator for the launch.
I stood with Christiane Amanpour on Vultures Row of the USS JF Kennedy (do a little scrolling) during the launch and then made my way down to the Wardroom to try to get a bite to eat and a short nap before my scheduled launch around 2am. Continuing the roller coaster of emotions for the past 96 hours, I left the flight deck feeling exhilarated and then slowly spiraled down after the launch as our world became still, even somber.
Dinner was almost silent. Usually full of boisterous laughter, that night the Wardroom was still. Conversations were barely above a whisper and I don’t remember even an attempt at a joke. I wouldn’t describe it as tense, just a respectful quiet, in which we all appreciated the time with our thoughts. I had that same feeling this afternoon sitting in the Chapel with Scott, though I know I’ll sleep better tonight than I did that night.
January 1991 was a time before e-mail and satellite Nudge Bars TV aboard ship… though we did have access to CNN Headline News delayed by a short time. That was a first for a ship at sea and we only got it after the shooting started. Anyway, one of the only ways to get real time news was radio, specifically BBC short wave. Most Naval Aircraft… most military aircraft… then had navigational radios that could be tuned to frequencies that the BBC transmitted on. On the first night of the war, in the moments before we knew what was the Time on Target for the first strikes, I was airborne, tuned to the BBC wondering how long it would take the news of the strikes to hit the airwaves. That, in itself, is an eerie feeling… knowing history is about to be made and listening to the media that will bring that news to the world. One minute Tina Turner, the next minute, history interrupting.
So sometime around 2:42 am local time in the Red Sea, my crew was listening to a Tina Turner concert being broadcast on the BBC World Service, when the presenter broke into the programming with a dramatic statement, “Bombs are falling on Baghdad.” Initially I was a bit surprised as it was about 20 minutes early, but then I remembered the cruise missiles were scheduled to be on target before the aircraft. And for the next couple of hours we listened to the opening of the war live on the wireless. The BBC was relying on Bernie Shaw for eyewitness reports from his hotel room in Baghdad, giving me a feeling like I was hearing the same news that Bernie was reporting to his CNN audience at home. It was fascinating, and at the same time nerve wracking. And then the nervousness really began to build.
As the strike aircraft headed home and started checking in via radio, my crew were all keeping a tally on how many planes were returning. Meanwhile, the radio spoke of the awesome sight of the AAA and all of the other confusion from missiles, bombs, jets and falling Iraqi shells. We wondered if there were American jets instead of bombs causing any of those explosions being reported? So we listened and we counted and we monitored a few different frequencies trying to piece together the puzzle. And at the end of the flight we were elated to know that all of Kennedy’s aircraft were back on deck. I was the last plane on deck.
After debriefing in our respective squadron Ready Rooms it seemed like the entire Air Wing had jammed the Wardroom for a meal and some venting of pressure. It was loud and boisterous and fascinating listening to all of the experiences, the fears of the morning before were forgotten. At least for an hour or so. But eventually word began to filter through the Wardroom that a Hornet was missing… then we learned it was from the Saratoga… then we heard where it went down… then that it was from VFA-81… then who the pilot was, and the roller coaster of emotions was plunging from the high of minutes before, all of the Jacksonville pilots and most of the others knew who Spike was.
As I sat in the Chapel this afternoon, that feeling came back. Not the feeling of elation, not the exhilaration of the day before, but of the feeling of a too sudden switch in emotion… the sudden drop all the way down to a sobering punch in the gut… it took me by surprise.
It’s been 18 and a half years, and although he was never forgotten, Scott Speicher had been missing. I think of our children, now almost grown, and I think of other shipmates lost, and I think of all of the other MIAs and I am sad. I think of all the birthdays and holidays and all of the gatherings that Scott missed… and was missed, his family not even knowing whether he was dead or alive. At least today, that uncertainty is gone and the all of the rest of the wounds can heal.
Welcome Home Spike.