Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"And I can see those fighter planes . . . . I was lost, I am found."

(songs: 'Bullet the Blue Sky' and 'I Will Follow')

I was shocked when I saw his face on the news on Sunday.

Words tumbled out of the newscaster’s mouth . . . “Michael Scott Speicher . . . missing U.S. Naval pilot who ejected from his F/A-18 Hornet over the Anbar province in Iraq during the opening hours of the Gulf War on January 17, 1991 . . . remains have been found after 18 years . . . U.S. Marines led to burial site by Iraqi nomad who had witnessed members of the Bedouin tribe burying him . . . identity confirmed with dental records, awaiting DNA test results . . .”

My lips felt dry. I realized I was holding my breath.
My thumb and index finger hurt and I became aware of how hard I was inadvertently squeezing between them the POW/MIA bracelet I’ve worn on my left wrist for the past six years. The name on the bracelet: Michael Scott Speicher.

You hope for a day like this.
You hope that he is still alive and that he will be found . . . but if the worst is true and he has died, you want to see him ‘home,’ buried in the dirt he pledged to defend.

His family has lived 18 years with unanswered questions, probably fearing they might never have him home on American soil. His children, now 21 and 19-years old were ages 3 and 1 at the time. They likely don’t remember the man affectionately called ‘Spike’ by his military brothers who didn’t seem to nurse competitive jealousies toward him the way the confident men you hope are your surgeons, your soldiers, and your fighter pilots sometimes do.

The 33-year old wasn’t even supposed to be ‘right there’ that night. He was slated to be the ‘airborne spare’ - - the fighter plane to rotate into the strike if any of the other aircraft malfunctioned that fateful night. But in what feels like a deleted scene from Top Gun, he pleaded with his command to let him take part in the actual strike, and his commander relented and agreed.

Capt. Speicher’s designation/status has changed through the years from ‘KIA’ to ‘MIA’ to ‘MIA-Captured’ based on secret intelligence details. After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, U.S. soldiers tasked with continuing the search for him revealed what appeared to be the initials of ‘MSS’ carved into a wall in an empty prison in Baghdad. Had he been there? The letters were in English. It seemed hopeful, in some way. Was he still alive?
Even so, it would be six more years until his story would have at least the biggest question answered: Where is (now Captain) Michael Scott Speicher?

Speculations and confusion remain, as even now, his remains were found ‘a good distance’ from the crash site. Investigations continue into whether he survived impact and later died/was killed, and if so, by whom. And when? And where was he in between those times? And for how long?
Like watching a real-life episode of Lost, it seems this is one of those times when one answer will lead to many more questions.

Six years ago on a trip to Washington DC, I was walking by a vendor’s kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial, approaching the reflecting pool. I think it was $10. I spent on this POW/MIA bracelet, slipping it onto my wrist as I walked away.
Since that day, I’ve worn the thick, silver bracelet in tribute and gratitude, taking every opportunity when people asked what the indented inscription said to tell his story again. I’ve angered airport security employees by refusing to remove it during security screenings because it set off the metal detector. “Can’t you remove it?” they’d ask, and I would always answer, “No,” which was the truth, but not in the same way they meant it. I’m sure my refusal tempted a police officer to haul me away in February when I had to go to court for a speeding ticket and he insisted I take it off to pass through security and I apologized but politely told him I wouldn’t. My darling nieces and nephews have played with the bracelet countless times while sitting on my lap and managed to get it to ‘just the right angle’ time and again where they could easily take it off and I’ve had to tell them not to pull on it because, “I never take it off.”

Seeing his face on tv on Sunday and hearing the story . . . I felt relief for his loved ones, and happy that he wouldn’t stay buried in the sands of another place. And I came to another realization that I hadn’t realized would hit me as hard as it did: it’s time for me to give it back.

POW/MIA bracelet tradition includes that when the person whose bracelet you wear is found and returned home, you’re supposed to send the bracelet you wear to the person’s family. It’s a way of completing the circle, in a way.
It’s an incredibly moving idea, a beautiful thought, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to receive something like this from a stranger bearing the name of the person you knew and loved.

My bracelet bears the scars of six years of daily wear.
It is scratched and nicked. It has marks and dings.
There times when I can literally feel heat from my body warming the metal and feel it against my wrist.
My arm has had daily imprints from everyday movements, the thick metal pushing down on my skin as the bracelet would work its way up and ‘dig in’ when it had no more room to move.
There is not a doorway in my house that has been immune to the careless movement of my rushing around a corner or into a room, fragments of paint on doorways missing everywhere at wrist-level from the thick bracelet hitting it, chips of paint on the floor through the years.

To think of parting with it is difficult. I’d never thought about what it might be like to give it up, to send it off, to return it to its rightful owner, to let the family know, “He's been remembered and I’m glad he’s home.”

I’ve struggled with this idea over the past few days because I’ve grown so attached to it. Just by the nature of never taking it off, it’s been a true constant in every single thing I’ve done for six years.
But, I know it’s not mine to keep now.

In the past few days, I’ve searched the internet for release of the family’s address or information on ‘what to do now.’
I was almost relieved when searches at first proved fruitless . . . I didn’t feel quite ready to give it up yet. And knowing that was selfish, it unsettled me to feel that way.

Then, today, I read it.
“I have received quite a few messages from people who would like to return their Captain Michael Scott Speicher POW/MIA bracelets to the family. I have heard from Captian Speicher’s family today and they have asked that you send them as soon as possible . . . they will be buried with Captain Speicher.”

It nearly took my breath away.

I’ve visited Speicher’s ‘in memory of’ tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery when I’ve been in DC before, and it filled me with a sadness to know that he was there in name only . . . that HE was ‘somewhere in this world,’ but seemed as distant as can be, in an unknown place.
It seemed . . . so wrong.

It somehow makes it easier to part with this bracelet to know that the token of remembrance I’ve come to love will finally see its anticipated ‘full circle’ - - and rest with the man I’ve wondered about and prayed for all this time.
It may sound cliché, but I’ve felt honored to wear it.

Captain Speicher will be buried in Jacksonville, Florida with bracelets bearing his name, remembrances from strangers who never knew him but never forgot him. I can’t imagine a more fitting conclusion to the privilege I’ve had in honoring what I now know is ‘his memory’ for these years. In this moment when I’m sad to part with it, I also know that because of the hope that existed in wearing it, I was always meant to someday let it go.

He’s finally home.

“Oh, don’t sorrow, no don’t weep, for tonight, at last, I am coming home. I am coming home.”
- U2, ‘(A Sort of) Homecoming’

1 comment:

Juju said...

Oh JenJam that's a beautiful story.
Thank you for sharing it.