ARLINGTON –– To the soldiers he saved on the ground in Iraq, Maj. Troy Gilbert was the picture of courage, posing proudly with his F-16. Other pictures torture his family back in Texas.
Images of his corpse, stolen by insurgents, have been used in propaganda videos. Gilbert died in Nov. 2006, just a few days after recording Christmas Bible readings for his five children. He hoped to be home within weeks.
But he flew his fighter low to avoid firing on civilians as he tried to protect American forces under attack. The jet scraped the ground. Within hours, insurgents posted crash video showing the pilot's intact body.
A year later, on 9/11, they used the decaying corpse in a produced propaganda film.
When America's military left Iraq two years ago without Gilbert's remains, his mother's heart broke again.
“Ninety-nine percent is still in the ground over there,” Kaye Gilbert pleaded in 2011. “Please, please help us get him home."
Maybe someone in Iraq heard Kaye Gilbert's plea. On Friday, she called her daughter in Arlington.
"My mother called me just bawling,” said Rhonda Jimmerson. “Just could not get the words out because it was just tears of joy."
The source of so much joy? "The military has acquired five bones of Troy's right foot," Jimmerson said.
That's it. Just five small bones, conveyed, the family says, by Iraq's government, to Jordan's government to the U.S.
"Everyone respected those five bones,” said Jimmerson of her brother’s skeletal remains. “Everybody handled them with care and gave them to the right resources. And now we have them. And that's a miracle."
Rhonda Jimmerson says the family might never know who turned over the bones or why. She does know that helping Americans can still get you killed in Iraq.
"The person who came forward with the remains, they risked a lot to be able to give those up. And we thank those people. Thank you for giving Troy back to us. If we get him piece by piece, we still are getting him back,” she said.
The family also wants to thank the Air Force for not dropping the quest to get Major Gilbert’s remains. Air Force officials reopened his case after a News 8 report on the family’s plight two years ago. Rhonda Jimmerson says she does not want anyone to risk their life for her brother’s physical remains.
Troy Gilbert’s widow, Ginger Ravella, believes the return of even five small bones is a display of God’s mercy. The family shares Troy Gilbert’s deep faith. A chapel at a U.S. Air Base in Iraq was named in his honor.
Ginger Ravella wants to enter the bones at Arlington National Cemetery. The casket buried there seven years ago contains only enough to identify the body and confirm that major Gilbert could not have survived the crash. His twin daughters, just nine months old when they lost their dad, will finally get to say goodbye.
For his life-saving actions in Iraq, Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert earned the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. His family says they will continue to pray for the return of more remains.