Plea by family of fallen Texas airman reaches the Pentagon

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by JIM DOUGLAS / WFAA

khou.com

Posted on February 22, 2012 at 11:36 AM

FORT WORTH, Texas -- In November 2006, Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert recorded Christmas wishes and Bible verses for his wife and five children. He told them he would be home soon.

The video and his Christmas presents arrived a few days later — the same day casualty officers brought news of Gilbert's death outside Baghdad.

His Fort Worth-made F-16 hit the ground as he swooped low to protect Americans under fire. The act saved many lives and earned the Texas Tech graduate the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor.

"They say he was very calm. He told this young man on the ground, 'I will not leave you,'" said the pilot's mother, Kaye Gilbert.

That makes it even harder for his family to accept that Troy Gilbert's remains were left behind when U.S. troops ended their mission in Iraq at the end of last year.

"Our hopes left with the troops when they left Iraq. So it was then we started questioning it," said Rhonda Jimmerson, Maj. Gilbert's sister, who now lives in Arlington.

After American forces pulled out, military mortuary affairs officials told the family there would be no more searches. Maj. Gilbert was officially "accounted for" because a tiny bit of identifiable issue was recovered from the cockpit and interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

The problem is, the Gilberts know the airman's body survived intact, because insurgents removed it from the crash site. Nearly a year later, they used his exhumed corpse in a ghastly propaganda video.

In a News 8 report earlier this month, Kaye Gilbert made an emotional plea: "Since my son is partially in the ground in Arlington — one or two inches maybe, but 99 percent is still in the ground over there — and please, please, help us get him home."

The pain... and the plea... touched the highest levels of the Pentagon. Less than two weeks after our story was broadcast, officials notified the family that Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley is stepping in.

He asked an Undersecretary of Defense for an exception to policy to allow a proactive search, writing that Maj. Gilbert's family deserves "nothing less than our best effort to recover his remains..."

"This is moving mountains," Rhonda Jimmerson said, letting herself smile at the news. She said her mother cried.

Maj. Gilbert's dad spent more than two decades in the Air Force. Kaye Gilbert was an Air Force secretary.

"This brought hope back to our family," Jimmerson said. "And that's what we were looking for... being able to look at tomorrow and know that they're looking... know that maybe one day, he's going to come home."

Others heard the Gilberts' plea, too.

Members of Congress launched inquiries. And Iraq war vets physically searched for Major Gilbert almost until the day U.S. troops departed the country in December.

"A young man who was in the military, he said three months ago he spent three days digging at a location," Jimmerson said, clearly moved by the efforts made to find her brother's body.

She said the family understands that Iraq may still be too dangerous to search again soon. She added, however, it is comforting to hear that what can be done will be done to bring Maj. Troy Gilbert home to Texas.

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com

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