Honoring a Hero

Exactly seven years ago today, I stood with many others at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Maj. Troy Gilbert after his F-16 crashed in Iraq while he was defending soldiers on the ground who were under attack.Today, on the anniversary of his burial, I stood once again at Arlington National Cemetery with many others to honor and welcome a part of him home again.The circumstances of Troy’s death in November 2006 are pretty dramatic. He was providing surveillance and reconnaissance for ground forces north of Baghdad when a coalition helicopter went down. As American forces were securing the helicopter and the people inside it, insurgents attacked them. Troy flew in, strafing the insurgents, and flying less than 200 feet from the ground.

According to the investigation, he was so focused on his targets, he forgot the ground entirely and crashed. The Air Force investigation reported that he probably died instantly.

When he crashed, the insurgents shifted focus from the American soldiers they were attacking, and got to the crash site before American forces could secure it. Insurgents took his body, and later released photographs and video of it immediately after the incident and one year later on the anniversary.

When the Americans finally got to the crash site, all they found were tiny fragments of Troy’s skull in the wreckage. It was enough to make a DNA identification, and to be certain that he did not survive the crash. Those parts of DNA were what was buried with full military honors in 2006.

Over the years, though, his family — his parents, his sister, his wife Ginger (who remarried), and their five beautiful kids — never lost hope that eventually his whole body would be found.

As American forces pulled out of Iraq in 2012, there was concern that nobody was going to continue looking for Troy’s remains, but due to the family’s persistence, Air Force leaders agreed to keep looking.

A little over a month ago, the family learned that a miracle happened. An Iraqi citizen came forward with some of the tiny bones of Troy’s right foot.

Those bones are what were buried in the ceremony today.

Just like that day seven years ago, it was a beautiful winter day. A small miracle in itself considering that just yesterday was a snow day after a weekend of freezing ice, sleet, fog, and snow. Today, the sky was a brilliant blue, the temperatures were moderate, and the sun was shining.

I met up with some mutual friends there at Arlington. We were able to see Ginger and hug on her shortly after she and her husband Jim arrived. When the time came, all of us got into our vehicles and drove to Troy’s burial site.

Of course, I’ve been to that location several times over the years, taking the kids with me every now and then to leave flowers for him.

Today, they had the area in front and around his tombstone marked off, along with a wreath of flowers and the container with his remains, which will be buried with the casket from 2006. There were about a 100 people in attendance, and all of us gathered around his marker for the service.

Several Air Force leaders attended and shared words about Troy, to include the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh. Their memories and stories about him and his impact on others brought both smiles and tears. Troy’s sister also stood up to speak, sharing very powerful testimony about Troy’s faith and how he continues to inspire others.

Next, Jim came up to share some words, and that’s when the tears really started to fall for me. He spoke about a man he never met, but whose life is so intertwined with his own, as Jim has adopted all five children and, as he said, thinks about Troy every day as he does the things he knows Troy would be doing with his children were he still alive.

He also read part of an email Troy had sent Ginger just a few days before he was killed, sharing Troy’s faith and conviction for what he was doing.

(By the way, Jim and Ginger’s story is pretty incredible, which you can read about HERE.)

After he spoke, all five children stood up to say some things, and it was so bittersweet. The girls, especially, were so little when Troy was killed. At the time, Isabella, who was also born in Italy just a few weeks before Miss C, was just three years old while the twin girls were only nine months old.

Yet all of them spoke of the things they know of their father, and the various ways they remember him, such as wearing his clothes (which the boys — now teenagers — fit in), hunting with his rifles, or eating Troy’s favorite dessert (brownies).

They even passed out brownies for everyone at the end of the service.

Aspen and Annalise lay flowers next to their father’s remains. That’s their stepfather Jim on the left.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie)

Ginger herself shared a few words, and it was so great to see her smiling and radiant. She spoke of how far she’s come from that day when we first honored Troy seven years ago, and the gratitude she has for those who supported her and the kids in so many ways over the years.

She explained that while they’ve always prayed for a full recovery, she is grateful that they were able to bring part of Troy home, seeing it a sign from the Lord to, “have peace and not fear because I [the Lord] now got [Troy] from the top of his head to the tip of his foot.

Her words were so powerful.

Ginger speaking at the service. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie)

I’m glad I was able to be there.

It was especially good to see the family again, and to be able to laugh and smile at the memories, even as tears flowed.

There is peace in knowing that in spite of all the darkness, loss, and grief …. hope, love, and faith sustained them, and continues to inspire so many today.

We will never forget Troy.