Knock on the door told a Navy wife in Florida the news she dreaded WAR IN THE GULF

January 19, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When three Navy officers in dress uniform knocked on the door of Michael Scott Speicher's Jacksonville home at 4:30 Thursday afternoon, his wife, Joanne, knew what they were there for.

"They didn't really have to say anything," said a family friend who asked not to be identified. "She knew they'd come to tell her he was the one."

There are only 24 pilots from Jacksonville's Cecil Field serving with a squadron of F/A-18 fighter-bombers aboard the USS Saratoga. So when early-morning news reports said one of those pilots had become the first U.S. casualty of the Persian Gulf war, the wives of all the squadron members waited in dread.

They spent the day talking to one another on the telephone, waiting for word. It came to the family of the 33-year-old Jacksonville native and veteran pilot known to his buddies as Spike.

Lieutenant Commander Speicher, a Navy pilot since he graduated from Florida State in 1980, spent three years teaching other pilots how to fly the one-man F/A-18 Hornet before transferring to a fighter squadron a See PILOT, 4A, Col. 1PILOT, from 1Ayear ago.

"He was expert in that plane," the friend said. "It isn't as though he didn't know what he was doing."

Commander Speicher grew up wanting to be a pilot. He graduated from Jacksonville's Nathan Forrest High School in 1975 and met his wife, Joanne, at Florida State.

"They just think their dad's on a cruise," the friend said of the couple's 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. "They're too young to tell them about the war."

Until his squadron left for the Persian Gulf in early August, Commander Speicher taught Sunday school to 4- and 5-year-olds at Jacksonville's Lakeshore United Methodist Church.

"Scott was just a type of person that had such a bubbling, enthusiastic spirit. Always smiling, always encouraging. And I just can't imagine Scott not coming home," said the Rev. Paul Dickinson.

The Navy officers who knocked on the family's door gave Joanne Speicher no details about her husband's death.

Military sources say he was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. One military source said reports indicated that the plane "exploded to bits" in the sky after being hit. "Evidently, pieces of the plane were strewn over the Iraqi landscape," the source said.

The pilot was officially listed as missing in action because his body was not recovered. But Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had said he was killed.

Commander Speicher's father, Wallace, speaking from his Jacksonville apartment, still holds out hope that his son bailed out and is alive.

"Scotty's coming home," he said.

The family friend said it was harder for his wife to hear he was listed as missing than it would have been to hear of his death.

"You're living with the hope even though you know there's

probably no reason to hope," said the friend, who also is married to a Navy pilot.

Mrs. Speicher let it be known that she wanted to mourn in private.

"Your whole life changes just in a matter of seconds. It takes some time to get used to that," the friend said.

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