10 years after crash in Iraq, pilot to be laid to rest

Story highlights

  • Not only had Troy Gilbert been killed in action, but insurgents had taken his body
  • His wife pushed the Air Force for years to recover his remains

San Antonio, Texas (CNN)On December 19, Ginger Gilbert Ravella and her five children will travel to the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60 to bury their beloved husband and father, F-16 pilot Maj. Troy Gilbert -- for the third time.

Ten years ago, Troy was flying in the skies over Iraq when he received a distress call about a Special Operations unit whose helicopter had crashed and was now being ambushed by enemy forces.
His wingman had flown off to refuel and the friendly forces on the ground were too close to the enemy to safely drop a bomb. So he flew dangerously low, strafing the enemy with his Gatling gun.
    "(Troy) wasn't going to look like he was doing something, he was actually going to do something," Ginger said.
    One pass went as planned and he took out an enemy truck. But on his next pass, he couldn't pull the jet up in time and it crashed. Troy died instantly.
    Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who led the investigation into Troy's crash, said he wrote the accident report knowing Troy's children would read it one day.
    "(Troy) was so intensely focused on taking that target out, saving American lives, that he didn't give himself enough room for the recovery," Goldfein told CNN's Barbara Starr.
    Troy left behind Ginger and their five children, including twin six-month-old girls.

    'Something terrible had happened'

    The knock at the door came without warning.
    "I just looked out and saw that sea of blue Air Force uniforms," Ginger said, "And I looked at their faces and I knew something terrible had happened."
    Not only had Troy been killed in action, but the family learned that insurgents had found his body, taken it and used it in online propaganda videos.
    Scouring the crash site, investigators were able to recover skull fragments that they identified through DNA as his. Ginger decided to hold his 2006 funeral with a full-sized, but empty, coffin.
    Years passed. As propaganda video continued to surface, the family fought to scrub them from the Internet. Meanwhile, Ginger still pushed the Air Force to find Troy's body -- all of it.
    During that time, the family found ways to remember Troy. On the anniversary of his death, they make his favorite food -- brownies -- and release balloons with hand-written messages on them.
    A few years ago, someone turned over some bones from Troy's toes to the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. After another DNA confirmation, the family held funeral number two in 2013.
    "It was very spiritually symbolic to me that all we had was the very top of his head and the very tip of his toes," Ginger said.
    There were days she thought they'd never recover the rest of him, but in August, Ginger finally received the phone call she had been waiting for.
    She was informed that "Troy's been found. And I was ... I was blown away," she said, her voice breaking.
    The very same unit Troy had saved recovered his body in Iraq after a local warlord claimed he had it.

    A new beginning

    Ginger's strong faith was shaken by Troy's loss, but her spirits were boosted by an email a stranger wrote about his wife's battle with breast cancer that was forwarded to her.
    She tracked the couple down and traded emails with them. They helped each other cope.
    The wife eventually passed away, and when Ginger by chance was spending the holidays near the couple's home, she arranged to meet the widower, Jim Ravella, face to face.
    Eventually, their mutual grief turned to love and they wed a few months later. He adopted all five Gilbert children on Memorial Day in 2009.
    Jim not only understood what Ginger was going through, he understood Troy.
    Himself a retired Air Force pilot who flew F-15s, Jim was able to follow the crash report like few others could.
    The couple is now writing a book about faith, loss and love. They work together for Folds of Honor, a charity that helps children who have lost a parent receive an education. As part of that, Ginger tells Troy's story to audiences across the country.
    "Gold Star families, we just want their name to still be spoken and their lives to still be relevant," Ginger explained. "And his life is very relevant, very relevant. He's still helping people. Which is exactly what he wanted to be doing."
    The family periodically watches a 90-minute video Troy recorded in Iraq just before he died. On it, he reads Bible verses to the children, tells them how much he loves them and promises to return home.
    While it won't be the reunion they all imagined, after 10 years, his homecoming will finally happen.