The long journey home

  • Published
  • By Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
Long rows of white marble headstones line the landscape of Arlington National Cemetery, each memorializing a fallen U.S. military member with a unique story of service to the nation.  Nestled within Section 60 of the sprawling cemetery lies a marker for Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert, an American Airman whose story and long journey home to his final resting place is an unusual one – and one which for nearly a decade lacked an ending since most of Gilbert’s remains had been missing and unrecovered somewhere in Iraq until this October.

Finally, 10 years after he died in combat, Gilbert’s complete remains were at last laid to rest Dec. 19, at Arlington National Cemetery during a funeral with full military honors. It was the third interment for the Airman at Arlington since 2006 and reunited remains recovered this year with partial remains originally recovered in 2006 and 2012. Gilbert’s family and more than 300 friends, colleagues and wingmen attended the funeral to pay their respects and honor the fallen Airman and Texas Tech graduate dubbed “Trojan” by his fellow aviators. The funeral was preceded by a memorial service at Joint Base Meyer Henderson Hall’s memorial chapel, which featured a performance and tribute to Gilbert by country music recording artists Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann and guests that included Gilbert’s family, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, Air Force Global Strike Command commander Gen. Robin Rand, U.S. Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, and Hollywood actor Gary Sinise. 


Gilbert was killed Nov. 27, 2006, while flying a mission in direct support of coalition ground combat operations when his F-16C Fighting Falcon crashed approximately 20 miles northwest of Baghdad. He was credited with saving the lives of U.S. service members and coalition allies who were under attack from Al Qaeda insurgents during the operation and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor for his actions that day. Because of the intense fighting on the ground, insurgents took the major’s body before U.S. forces were able to get to the scene, leading to 10 long years of a family waiting for their son, brother, husband and father to come home.


He was survived by his mother and father, Kaye and retired Senior Master Sgt. Ron Gilbert; sister, Rhonda Jimmerson; wife, Ginger Gilbert Ravella; sons, Boston and Greyson; and daughters, Isabella, Aspen and Annalise.


Following the accident, U.S. forces recovered DNA which provided enough information to positively identify Gilbert. His funeral, with full military honors, followed Dec. 11, 2006, at Arlington National Cemetery. In September 2012, some additional, but very limited, remains were recovered and interred during a second service Dec. 11, 2013.


Then, on Aug. 28, 2016, an Iraqi tribal leader approached a U.S. military adviser near al Taqaddam, Iraq, and produced what he claimed to be evidence of the remains of a U.S. military pilot who had crashed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Iraqi said he was a representative of his tribe, which had the remains and the flight gear the pilot was wearing when he went down.


The tribal leader turned over the evidence to the U.S. adviser who immediately provided it to U.S. experts for testing at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. AFMES confirmed the evidence Sept. 7, through DNA testing. 


With this verification, U.S. military advisers in Iraq reengaged the tribal leader who subsequently turned over the remains, including a U.S. flight suit, flight jacket and parachute harness.


Gilbert's remains, promptly prepared for return to the U.S. for testing, arrived Oct. 3, at Dover AFB. Airmen at Dover conducted a dignified transfer upon arrival at the base, which was attended by Gilbert’s family, base officials and senior Air Force leaders.


AFMES confirmed Oct. 4, through dental examination and DNA testing that all remains received were those of Gilbert. His lost remains had been recovered and fully repatriated. A decade after he had died, Gilbert had finally returned to the country he so valiantly served.  


This third and final interment of Gilbert’s remains at Arlington has at long last brought some closure to the fallen Airman’s family. In an e-mail, his parents expressed their appreciation to all those who never gave up the search for their son:

Praise be to God our devoted son, grandson, brother, father, friend, Christ-worshipper, hunter, fisherman, soccer player, fun-lover, pilot and military man is home! Thanks to every Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman from the lowest ranking to the four-star generals who made this happen. Thanks to every United States citizen who wrote letters to their senators and congressmen with pleas to search for him. Thanks for freedom of speech and the great writer who sent Troy's story across this land and across the seas. Thanks to the author of the great poem we received from a wonderful man in France. Thanks to the wonderful artist who sent us the picture of Troy and devotes his life to drawing beautiful pictures of the fallen heroes. Thanks to every mother and father who ever watched their son or daughter go off to war and were so very scared for their safety yet were bulging, beaming with pride that they loved this country enough to protect and defend it in time of war and peace.

We will pray for every fallen Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman who hasn’t returned home. May our country find them and give you the peace that we have received in the past few months. May freedom ring in this land, may peace prevail, and may we all humble ourselves and give thanks to the great men and women of the United States military and police forces who make it happen. Thanks for all who prayed for our son, please keep praying for us, this nation and one another.

Peace and Love, Senior Master Sgt. Ronnie and Kaye Gilbert

Gilbert’s wife also relayed her thankfulness and said the Air Force had fulfilled its promise to leave no Airman behind.

“The children and I have been hoping, waiting and praying for the day that their father’s remains would return to this country that he loved well and served sacrificially,” said Ginger Gilbert Ravella. “We are beyond thankful for the many men and women of our Armed Forces who have diligently searched for Troy these last 10 years, and especially to the unit that risked their lives to recover him. The Airman’s Creed states ‘I will defend my country with my life.’ Troy fulfilled this promise to his brothers in arms the day he gave his life.

“It also states ‘I will never leave an Airman behind.’ The military has now fulfilled their promise to Troy,” Gilbert Ravella said. “Troy’s parents, sister and our entire family will feel closure we haven’t felt before. We will grieve but we will also rejoice.”

Gen. Robin Rand, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, met Gilbert at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, as they crossed paths in the F-16 community. The major eventually became Rand’s executive officer and was serving under Rand’s command in the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, Iraq, at the time of the crash.

“Major Gilbert was the embodiment of everything we expect in an Airman – he was a warrior and a brother to everyone who wore the uniform,” Rand said. “Troy was absolutely determined not to let anyone down that day, and that's exactly how I remember him from our time together. He made a sacred promise to never leave a fellow warrior behind. I sincerely hope it grants a piece of closure to his amazing family, friends, and fellow brothers and sisters in arms, that brave and determined Americans were able to ensure that same promise to him.”

(Editor’s note: Air Force Staff Sgts. Alyssa C. Gibson and Jannelle McRae contributed to this story.)