Maj. Troy Gilberts former wife and their five children placed roses behind a small box beside his grave. Ginger Gilbert Ravella then knelt down, kissed her finger and placed it gently on the box after the Dec. 11 ceremony that partially fulfilled the familys quest to bring their fallen hero to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gilberts few originally recovered remains were buried exactly seven years earlier with full military honors after he was killed in action in Iraq on Nov. 27, 2006.
Troys favorite scripture talked about three different places we can be in life ñ youre soaring, walking or running,î Gilbert Ravella said. The last three months of Troys life, that man was soaring. He was soaring professionally. All those years of training to be an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, he had to put to use in Iraq for the mighty cause of our freedom. He was soaring personally ñ he missed our family, but he was deployed so far away with dear friends who loved and supported him every day. Spiritually, he was also soaring, living out his faith.
Gilbert, the son of retired Air Force SMSgt. Ron and Kaye Gilbert, deployed from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2006 and was killed when his F-16C crashed while he was supporting special operations forces under fire near Taji.
Insurgents were attacking a special operations team with truck-mounted heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire and mortars. Gilbert destroyed the truck with his 20-mm gun while facing enemy fire, which saved all 19 special operations troops. According to reports, Gilbert flew his F-16 low to the ground during strafing runs to avoid injuring civilians nearby, and he crashed on his second pass after the tail end of the plane hit the ground.
Air Force Chief of Staff†Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Gen. Robin Rand, the Air Education and Training Command commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, were among those who paid tribute to Gilberts life. Rand commanded the 332nd AEW at Balad AB while Gilbert was deployed. Gilbert was also Rands executive officer at Luke AFB before they deployed. He called the ceremony a reunion of sorts,î and not just because of the many family members and friends who gathered for a second chance to pay their respects. Rand also recognized the names on several graves nearby that were also connected to Gilbert, including the one of Capt. Kermit O. Evans, to the immediate left. Evans was killed about a week after Gilbert on Dec. 3.
You might wonder why (I am) talking about these others. Were here to honor Troy,î he said. The answer is Troy would have wanted us to. You see, Troy served. He would not be comfortable with us honoring him. He would want us to honor these other Airmen because he would want us to know they all had a great story to tell.î
Rand also shared Gilberts story, beginning with his pride in being the son of a retired NCO, how he met his wife while both were in college at Texas Tech University, and how his service in the Balad hospital led to a dedication of one of the rooms to him after his death.
He was the most selfless man Ive ever been around, and at Balad, he was on his game,î Rand said. He spent every minute he could when he wasnt flying, at the hospital helping the chaplain. Sweeping up bloody (operating rooms), holding babies, changing bed pans, whatever he could do, that was Troy Gilbert.
Your dad was a tiger in battle,î he told Gilberts oldest son Boston directly. And as tragic as his loss is, 19 Rangers walked away that day because of him. History tells that story. He did greatness that day, but that isnt what made Troy great. It wasnt his actions on Nov. 27, 2006. What made Troy great was the way he adhered to our values of integrity, service and excellence.î
After the crash, only a small amount of his remains was recovered for burial during his 2006 ceremony. The Air Force responded to urging from the family to request a search for additional remains be reopened, which enabled the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office to continue searching with the cooperation of the Iraqi government.
The Air Force received additional remains in September 2012, and the armed forces medical examiner positively identified them as Gilberts, but notification was delayed in hopes additional remains were recovered, according to Col. John M. Devillier, the Air Force Mortuary Affairs commander.
Gilberts wife is now remarried to a retired F-15 Eagle pilot, Jim Ravella, and their five children now range in ages from seven to 16 years, while the oldest, Boston, was nine when his father was killed.
I dont want to miss the miracle of today because we prayed for his full recovery, and we have part of it,î Gilbert Ravella said. There is spiritual significance to me and what God has allowed us to have. Seven years ago after the crash, all we had were skull fragments, and thats what we are standing on. In the last year, they recovered the very tip of the bones in his foot. So I think thats the Lord saying have peace and not fear because Ive now got from the top of his head to the tip of his foot.î
She recalls the ceremony seven years earlier when she couldnt characterize herself as soaring,î as she saw in her husband in the final months of his life. Gilbert Ravella said she had to rely on many of the people present at his graveside to help her with the grief and shock that overwhelmed her since her life changed from caring for their five children and counting down the weeks to when she expected a happy homecoming from deployment to a heartbreaking funeral at Arlington.
But on this day, while there were plenty of tears by Gilberts grave among his family, friends and fellow Air Force officers, the ceremony was more than just another occasion for sadness. It was also a time to honor an Airman who was fully aware of the serious nature of his job, as he highlighted in several of the last messages he sent his wife and others he loved.
I value human life but (the enemy) are evil,î he wrote a month before his death. Its a big responsibility . . . but I will not hesitate if given the chance to do it all over again. I know I am doing the job God wants me to do. I know He has me here for a reason.î