JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – "Welcome home, Scott." It's a sentence this community has been waiting 18 years to say.
Even if the homecoming is still wrapped in questions.
On Friday, Jacksonville's mayor delivered brief remarks under gray skies
, before the city's Memorial Wall honoring war veterans and hundreds of citizens clutching red roses and American flags.
Many in the crowd wore military uniforms.
|Daron Dean / Reuters|
Florida Governor Charlie Crist, right, stands with Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, second from right, as the hearse carrying the remains of Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher passes the Duval County Veterans Memorial Wall in Jacksonville, Fla.on Friday.
The somber crowd then walked over to the roadway, lining it in almost complete silence, as they waited for the procession of Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher's remains.
A man Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist called "the best of the best" during his remarks Friday morning.
Nearly two decades have passed since the 33-year-old father of two toddlers was shot down over the Iraqi desert, on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm.
That much is known.
It's what happened next, and for the years that followed, that is not clear even now to his family and the many others who never forgot him.
Did he indeed eject from his FA-18 Hornet and survive, to be captured and buried later? Or was he killed on impact and buried by Bedouins in the desert, as the latest information coming from Iraqi civilians indicates?
The Defense Department has been pressured for years to find out what happened, and on Aug. 2, the Pentagon disclosed that Marines had recovered Speicher's bones and skeletal fragments – enough for a positive identification.
Speicher's family believes he survived the initial crash, based on what's come out of the investigation over so many difficult years.
His status has been changed by the military several times, from "killed in action," to "missing in action," even to "missing/captured" in 2002, and then back again. At one point the then-secretary of the Navy said he believed Scott was captured.
But today, for many here, those details no longer matter.
This was a day to be thankful he is finally home, to be laid to rest.
|VIDEO: Remembering the Gulf War's first casualty|
'Just a great guy'
Taps is always wrenching to hear; this time, it was deeply felt.
Standing there in the breezeless heat and the quiet, you thought back to the start of the conflict and where you were that night, maybe nervously watching Desert Storm on television – while Speicher was actually there. I imagine he was bravely charging into the unknown. And as a result, he became our first casualty.
Former Navy squadron commander and Vietnam veteran Jake Piatt managed to laugh a little after the ceremony, remembering meeting Speicher at a Jacksonville bar just two months before he went missing. They had just been at an air show.
He said Speicher's nametag on his flight suit read "Spike" and Piatt had joked with him about it. Piatt said he finally convinced Scott to give it to him, because his best friend's name was also Spike.
"Most guys would probably have knocked you in the face," he said, "because I tore his nametag off. But he was just a great guy."
Piatt said he relentlessly followed Scott's story, as so many here have. "We all have that feeling when it's one of our own. You hope, you pray."
John Campbell, who attended the same high school as Speicher, couldn't help but feel the emotion of a day so long in coming.
"I feel like he's a part of me," said Campbell. "I followed his story on the news so much."
As Speicher's hearse rode slowly by, in the somber quiet and haze of the summer morning, a 21-gun salute by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office made people jump and gasp.
Bringing home a little bit of the reality of war, as veterans here put it.
They said sometimes things happen that can't ever be explained or solved. They just happen.
Speicher's remains will be buried Friday. His family plans to continue the investigation into what happened, and to meet with Defense Department officials soon.
Here in the town that never stopped hoping Speicher would be found, Campbell said simply, "I'm glad he's home."