(VIDEO) Major Troy Gilbert, a 1993 Texas Tech University alumnus, was killed when his F-16 fighter jet crashed in Iraq during a rescue mission in 2006.
Originally published November 27, 2016
The Monday after Thanksgiving 2006 began like any other day for Texas Tech University alumna Ginger Gilbert Ravella. She watched her 3-year-old daughter, Bella, jump on the trampoline in the backyard of their home in Phoenix, while 9-month-old twin daughters Aspen and Annalise napped inside.
Her two oldest boys, Boston and Greyson, then 8 and 6, were at school. Her husband, fellow Texas Tech graduate and Air Force fighter pilot Major Troy “Trojan” Gilbert, was stationed at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, almost three months into a four-month deployment.
At about 9:15 a.m., hearing a knock, she opened the front door.
“There they all were – the commander, the chaplain,” Gilbert Ravella recalls. “My little girl was hanging on my leg and they said, ‘Is there anybody here that can take care of her? We need to talk to you.'”
Gilbert Ravella handed her daughter to a friend who had stopped by a few minutes earlier and followed the men into her daughter's bedroom.
“Troy's plane has gone down during a combat mission west of Baghdad,” they told her. “His plane's gone down. That's all we know.”
The following week would bring more bad news, including the fact that her husband's body had been taken from the crash site by insurgents before U.S. forces could get to him. It was the beginning an almost 10-year effort to find and return her husband's body to the U.S.
“People who don't believe in miracles, they will after they hear this story. It was one-in-a-billion.”
- Ginger Gilbert Ravella
That ended after a successful recovery mission this summer, five years after U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq. On Dec. 19, Gilbert will finally be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We lived with it every second of every minute of every day,” Gilbert Ravella said. “They didn't fail us.”
Troy and Ginger met at Angelo State University in 1989 before transferring to Texas Tech. Gilbert Ravella came from a family of Red Raiders – her mom and brother both graduated from Texas Tech and her grandparents graduated from the university after meeting there in the 1930s.
“My grandad, Jim, lived with a family across the street from Texas Tech,” Gilbert Ravella said. “He had a cow. He milked the cow and that's how he paid for his room and board; he provided the family milk.”
Gilbert came from a different heritage.
“Troy was the first person in his family to graduate from college,” Gilbert Ravella said. “That was a big deal for him. His dad enlisted in the Air Force, and so they moved around a lot.”
The pair spent their days like any other college couple, she said, attending classes in interior design for her and international economics for him. Outside of class, they spent their time together or at work.
“He worked at Hillcrest Country Club and I worked at Steak and Ale,” Gilbert Ravella said. “I think when you're in the moment, you don't see it but I look back and think, ‘Oh man, those were just the care-free days.'”
She's thankful for the time they shared in those early years.
“We had those few extra years of undistracted time together,” she said. “I thought we'd have a lifetime, but we didn't.”
Their senior year, Gilbert proposed. Gilbert Ravella remembers working on an interior design project at a historic bed and breakfast just outside of Lubbock.
“I did all my research at that bed and breakfast,” she said. “He asked me to marry him there – that was kind of sweet. He was trying to tie in all the things I loved.”
On May 22, 1993, a week after graduation, the pair married.
Building a life together
After the wedding, the couple moved to Midland-Odessa for work. Gilbert had dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, but at that point, the military had a surplus of pilots.
“He said, ‘I'll just work. I guess the Air Force isn't meant for me,'” Gilbert Ravella said.
After about six months of working at a local country club, Gilbert came home with another idea.
“Maybe I should just apply to be an officer. Someday they're going to need pilots again,” he told Gilbert Ravella. “Maybe that's the route God wants me to take.”
His application was approved, and Gilbert was accepted into Officer Training School in Montgomery, Alabama.
“He said, ‘Sign me up, what do you need me to do?' and the Air Force said, ‘We need you to do personnel.' And it was like, wow, there couldn't be anything further from being a fighter pilot than to be a personnel officer,” Gilbert Ravella recalled with a laugh. “But you know, he was a humble guy, he just said OK and that's what he did.”
In 1995, Gilbert continued his work in personnel and then worked in protocol for generals at Royal Air Force Lakenheath in England. During their four years in England, Gilbert worked toward his dream of being a pilot, with Gilbert Ravella paying for him to get his private flying license.
At the end of that assignment, the couple returned to the U.S. Gilbert started his next assignment at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. They were there two weeks when the head of the academy called Gilbert into his office.
Ready to fly
“He said, ‘Congratulations, I just got word that you got into pilot training. I release you, you're free and clear. Go live your dream,'” Gilbert Ravella said.
It was insanity, she recalls. Their first son, Boston, had been born barely a week before and they were just settling in. As much as he had looked forward to being a pilot, Gilbert Ravella said Gilbert didn't feel right leaving so soon after starting a new assignment.
“I thought this spoke volumes to who Troy was,” Gilbert Ravella said. “He deferred his pilot training for a year. It set us on a different course than had he gone right away, but I think it was just his character – he really was not selfish at all.”
Gilbert began pilot training the following year at Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls. In 2000, their second son, Greyson, was born, and the family headed to Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix for about nine months where Gilbert learned how to fly the F-16 fighter jet.
An assignment in Italy at Aviano Air Base followed, where Gilbert flew missions for Operation Northern Watch as part of the 555th Fighter Squadron. Their first daughter, Isabella, was born in 2003.
The next year, the family of five headed back to Luke AFB where Gilbert worked as an instructor pilot. The days were long, often beginning with a 4:30 a.m. briefing.
“He was always smiling, no matter how early or dark or cold or hot, it didn't matter, always cheering everybody up,” said Col. Jeff “Sniper” Davies, who taught alongside Gilbert. “He was about the best guy in the world, a good old Texas boy, a big family man and a huge person of faith. And he was beloved, well before any accident.”
Gilbert also was good at what he did, which Davies said others noticed almost immediately.
“People understood not only was he a very approachable, very humble guy, he was also an extremely qualified individual,” Davies said. “You got the sense pretty early on that he was going to do very well for himself and his family.”
Soon, Gilbert was chosen to serve as a presidential advance agent for President George W. Bush, one of about 50 pilots selected each year. It wasn't long before he was made executive officer to the 56th Fighter Wing commander, Gen. Robin Rand, now the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
“He was great, just fantastic. He was well-respected, very professional,” Rand said. “To be selected to be the executive officer you have to be pretty squared away. You're working directly for the wing commander; you're representing the wing commander in a lot of things. It's a pretty selective process to be in that job.”
Two years brought two more daughters to the Gilbert family in February 2006, with the arrival of twins Aspen and Annalise. In May, Rand received word that he was selected to be wing commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was right in the middle of the Iraq War, a conflict with no discernible end in sight, Rand said.
Gilbert, known by then as an expert in flying the F-16, signed on for an assignment at Balad and arrived in September for a four-month deployment.
“I flew his first mission with him when he showed up,” Rand said. “I was able to spend some time with him, not like we had at Luke, where I was with him every day, but we crossed paths on a routine basis.”
A month of missions
Gilbert was in charge of standardization and evaluation for the Operations Support Squadron, Rand said, but he was there mostly to fly combat missions.
“The war was going on, there was no such thing as training missions,” Rand said. “We're in a combat zone and Troy was flying combat missions.”
Those missions lasted six to seven hours and often included providing support to those engaged in ground combat. Pilots watched for suspicious items on the ground, like improvised explosive devices, and were on call to provide armed support at a moment's notice.
“If something heated up, we would react,” Rand said. “That's what Troy did the day he was killed. He got a call to go there because we had Americans in harm's way.”
Nov. 27, 2006
That day, Gilbert and his wingman took off on an early morning mission. Sometime after that, an army AH-6 helicopter with American soldiers went down about 20 miles north of Baghdad from an apparent rocket-propelled grenade hit.
A group of special operations forces responded, showing up at the crash site to rescue the flight crew, and were met with enemy fire.
"They needed help," Rand said. "That's when Troy and his wingman entered the picture."
The two pilots needed to refuel in the air, so Gilbert decided to fuel first and then allowed his wingman to do so. While the second pilot refueled, Gilbert returned to engage the enemy alone.
“Due to the proximity of the enemy insurgents and out friendly forces, the only weapon Troy could safely use was his plane's internal 20-millimeter gun,” Rand said. “If he used bombs, they would have taken care of the enemy but also could have injured or killed the friendlies.”
Gilbert got clearance to fire on the insurgents and came in low and fast, taking out one truck before pulling up and around for a second pass. He kept his eyes on the target, looping around and then coming down even lower and steeper as he began firing on the second truck.
“Troy was the cavalry. He didn't even know those guys, but that's the spirit of what we do,” Rand said. “This is the real deal, people were shooting back, this wasn't training. It was a life-or-death situation. They needed help and Troy was doing his best to provide it.”
He was successful in his first strafing pass, but during his second pass his plane impacted the ground.
“Our brave warriors on the ground walked away that day in large measure due to the efforts of Major Troy Gilbert,” Rand said.
Back at the base, Rand was getting ready to head out on a flight of his own when he received word a plane had been lost and a combat rescue mission was needed. As he and his wingman prepared to taxi, Rand said he got a call to shut down and head inside instead.
“Sir, it was Troy that went down,” he was told. There was no time to take a knee in the combat zone – procedures had to be completed and missions had to continue.
“It was a life-or-death situation. They needed help and Troy was doing his best to provide it.”
- Gen. Robin Rand
“You can't just stop when people are counting on you,” Rand said. “When you're in combat, you have to do your mourning when you come home.”
Back in Phoenix at Luke AFB, Davies said their commander brought all the pilots into the squadron conference room and told them an F-16 had gone down. It didn't appear the pilot had survived, the commander said.
“I'm thinking it was one of our ex-students and it was tough,” Davies said. “But when I heard it was Troy, that was pretty devastating. We didn't fly the rest of the day.”
“When I heard it was Troy, that was pretty devastating. We didn't fly the rest of the day.”
- Col. Jeff "Sniper" Davies
At the Gilbert house, Ginger opened the door to the chaplain, commander and two other officers and received the initial news about the crash. So far, the only thing they knew was the plane had gone down. Because of enemy activity near the crash site, they couldn't send in a recovery mission right away. No one knew if Troy had survived.
Several hours later, there was more news, none of it good.
“I'm thinking OK, maybe he survived, maybe he punched out of the jet,” Gilbert Ravella said. “It took about eight hours for them to come back to my house. That's when they told me the unthinkable.”
Missing in action
“I called the wing commander at Luke and I passed on, ‘We've had an accident, Troy was in it, it's not good and we don't have a body,'” Rand said. “The enemy was able to get to the crash site and they took Troy's remains away before we could get there.”
“He was great, just fantastic. He was well-respected, very professional.”
- Gen. Robin Rand
The next morning, Rand said they were finally able to get to the crash site and recovered
a small amount of DNA in the form of a skull fragment. The fragment was shipped back
to Dover Air Force base for testing and Gilbert Ravella was told if they were a match
with Gilbert, there was no way he could have survived.
“We had to wait again,” Gilbert Ravella recalled tearfully. “So we waited five days. To say it was a pretty bad week is an understatement.”
She struggled with what to tell her children, finally deciding only to tell them that their father had gone to be with Jesus.
“They were way too young,” Gilbert Ravella said. “I didn't tell them any of that for years.”
“He was about the best guy in the world, a good old Texas boy, a big family man and a huge person of faith. And he was beloved, well before any accident.”
- Col. Jeff "Sniper" Davies
On Friday, Gilbert Ravella received word the DNA was a match. Though Gilbert's body was still missing, his family began planning a funeral, and his duty status went from “whereabouts unknown” to “killed in action.” It was a designation that would later become significant as the search for Gilbert's body continued.
“We had a huge memorial in Phoenix on Dec. 6,” Gilbert Ravella said. “About 1,800 people came to that. Then on Dec. 11, we had a full honors funeral at Arlington for him.”
At Texas Tech, flags on campus were lowered to half-staff. Gilbert Ravella said she realized then how much the university cared about its own.
“It'd been years. We graduated in 1993 and left Lubbock, he went into the military and we lived all over the world,” Gilbert Ravella said. “He spent three years there, that's it. For them to remember him and honor his sacrifice in that way, I thought that really spoke volumes about how much Texas Tech loves their students, even years later. That meant so much to me.”
Back in Iraq, Gilbert's soldiers dealt with the loss, but Rand said immediately following the crash, there was a sobering uncertainty that hung thick in the air. They struggled with the thought there was something one of them had done to contribute to Gilbert's crash or wondered if there had been a mechanical issue with the plane.
It was then that Rand said he witnessed what he considered to be one of the finest acts of leadership he's seen in his career. The squadron commander, then Lt. Col. Dave Walker, rallied everyone near one of the aircraft shelters.
“OK gang, we lost an airplane and we don't know why,” Walker told the group of about 150 F-16 pilots and maintainers. “We don't know a 100 percent the status of the pilot, but I need y'all to get your chins up. We have a mission to do, we've got to focus and folks are counting on us to do our job.”
Walker then closed with the reminder that he believed in each one of them and trusted his life to them.
“I'm going to come back in 12 hours and I'll fly any plane that you give me,” he said.
Missions continued as planned the rest of the week, and the following Sunday, Rand said, they had a powerful memorial service in Gilbert's honor at the base.
Gilbert Ravella coped as best as she could, raising her children and trying to make sense of the loss of her husband. In January 2007, a friend sent her an email written by Col. Jim Ravella, who was also a fighter pilot.
The email detailed the struggle of Ravella's wife, Andrea, who had been hospitalized due to complications related to a terminal breast cancer diagnosis. When the doctors told him his wife was nearing death, Ravella turned to his faith in God.
“God didn't change for me today,” Ravella wrote. “He's not defined by my circumstances
and my faith isn't defined by my circumstances.”
Gilbert Ravella, who was struggling with her own faith, decided to reach out to Jim and Andrea. Andrea went home from the hospital and the three began corresponding via email. The Ravellas, who had been facing death for four years by then, responded with what advice they could.
That November, as the first anniversary of Gilbert's death approached, Gilbert Ravella kept in touch as Andrea was hospitalized again. On Dec. 17, Andrea died. The roles were reversed then, with Gilbert Ravella offering Jim support.
“I'm sorry if I said anything stupid to you because I thought I understood what it meant to face death. But it was so final,” Ravella recalls responding to her. “I just felt how inadequate I was to give advice when I realized what she had actually been going through.”
After the funeral on Dec. 21, Ravella and his two sons, Nicholas and Anthony, traveled to Wichita Falls to visit his mother-in-law. On Christmas morning, Ravella decided to travel to Dallas to visit his sister, and Gilbert Ravella, who was in Dallas visiting her best friend, suggested they meet.
“Jim's such an answer to prayer. He and Troy never knew each other, but they do now.”
- Ginger Gilbert Ravella
“We pulled into the parking lot of the Four Seasons and just got out and looked at each other. We knew each other well; we'd just never seen each other,” Ravella said. “We just got out and hugged.”
Ravella invited Gilbert Ravella to his sister's house across the street and they had Christmas dinner with his family. Over the next few weeks, they met a couple more times, with Ravella meeting her parents and then flying to Phoenix to meet her children.
Soon, Ravella asked her to marry him.
It seemed crazy, he said, but as with Andrea, he said he knew when he saw her. They married in May 2008 and Gilbert Ravella and her five children moved to San Antonio soon after, joining Ravella and his two sons.
Searching for Troy
Through those first few years of rebuilding a life, the search for Gilbert continued.
Rand said they knew finding Gilbert's body was not going to be easy. They didn't know who had taken him from the crash site, and though they were committed to follow every lead, without anyone coming forward, it was nearly impossible to find him in a country where every corner was part of a war zone.
“Troy wasn't MIA – but he was. His body was missing.”
- Ginger Gilbert Ravella
“We told Ginger we'd never stop trying, and 2006 turned into 2007 and 2007 turned into 2008,” Rand said. “That whole time, we were pursuing any leads and any intel people had, but there wasn't a lot forthcoming.”
One evening in 2008 or 2009, Rand and Chief Master Scott Dearduff, who was the Wing Command Chief with Troy at Luke and Balad, visited Gilbert Ravella at her home in San Antonio, bringing some personal effects found at the crash site – a kneeboard, helmet visor cover and a watch that had initially been recovered at the crash site.
The effects included photos Gilbert Ravella had never seen. Her husband had been carrying a camera the day he was killed, and though it was burned beyond recognition, the undamaged memory stick yielded several photos, including one of Gilbert.
"Troy had apparently taken it himself – long before the days of selfies – exactly one week prior," Gilbert Ravella said. "I think it's a beautiful photo of a man at peace, even in a time of war."
The search for Gilbert persisted unchanged until 2011 when it was announced that the U.S. would begin pulling forces out of Iraq. It was then the classification given to Gilbert – “killed in action,” not “whereabouts unknown” – became significant.
“He was accounted for. In the Air Force, he was not a missing person,” Gilbert Ravella said. “He wasn't MIA – but he was. His body was missing.”
The situation was unique to the Air Force, Gilbert Ravella said. She and Gilbert's parents and sister knew it would take a fight to get the military to continue searching, especially without a U.S. presence within the country.
“I knew enough to know that if we pulled out of this country, who is going to be left to look?” she recalls.
Gilbert's family and friends rallied, contacting media and lawmakers. In 2012, their efforts were rewarded – an exception to policy was made to keep Gilbert's case open and continue the search for his remains.
“We knew finding Troy would always be a priority for the special operations side of the military, but to have an actual policy change, that was a huge victory,” Gilbert Ravella said.
Big hopes, small triumph
The continued efforts appeared to pay off soon after. In 2013, Gilbert Ravella received a call from Rand, who was stationed in San Antonio at the time, asking her to come to his office. He told Gilbert Ravella an Iraqi turned in five bones from tips of Gilbert's toes in 2012. They had put off telling her until after they had exhausted every lead and completed months of additional searching, hoping to find the rest of Gilbert's remains.
“You have the very top of his head at the top of his skull and the end of his toe bones right underneath the toe nail.”
- Medical Examiner to
Ginger Gilbert Ravella in 2013
“They just knew this was going to be it,” Ravella said. “And every road ended up nowhere.”
The discovery of additional remains led to another service at Arlington seven years after the first and a difficult task for Gilbert Ravella – explaining to her two youngest daughters the actual story behind their father's death.
“I waited until the kids were each old enough to explain that his body had been taken,” Gilbert Ravella said. “They didn't know. The twins were seven and I was forced to try to explain what we were doing and why we were going back.”
It was a beautiful service, she said, with each of the children speaking about their father. Rand and several people who were in Iraq with Gilbert attended the service, along with then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.
“To me, it was so amazing to see 150 people come to bury five little bones, but that was what people wanted to do for who he was,” Gilbert Ravella said.
Those small additional remains also helped her come to terms with Gilbert's death in a way she hadn't been able to before. Wanting to understand exactly how much of Gilbert had been found, Gilbert Ravella spoke with the medical examiner.
“Well, you have less than 1 percent of his skeletal remains,” he told her. “You have the very top of his head at the top of his skull and you have the end of his toe bones right underneath the toe nail.”
It was like God was speaking to her, she said, reassuring her that Gilbert was in his hands, from his heads to his toes, and telling her not to worry.
“It was really powerful and from 2013 to now, I've had a different kind of peace,” Gilbert Ravella said. “If it happens in my lifetime, that he's ever fully recovered, praise God. I pray it really happens in my children's lifetimes, but if not, it was just loud and clear, ‘I've got all of him. Don't be discouraged.'”
Gilbert Ravella's prayers would not go unanswered. In September, she received another call from Rand.
“Ginger, he's been fully recovered,” he told her.
The recovery began on Aug. 28 when an Iraqi tribal leader approached a U.S. military adviser with information about remains and flight gear that were in his tribe's possession. Evidence given to support the claim was tested by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
A week and a half later, confirmation was made – they were Gilbert's.
The advisers met with the tribal leader again and successfully obtained the rest of Gilbert's remains, his flight suit and jacket and his parachute harness. On Oct. 3, Rand and other Air Force officials and leaders joined Gilbert Ravella and Ravella and their children; Gilbert's mother and father, Kaye and Ron Gilbert; and his sister, Rhonda, for the dignified transfer of Gilbert's remains at Dover Air Force Base.
“People who don't believe in miracles, they will after they hear this story,” Gilbert Ravella said. “It was one-in-a-billion.”
The following day, additional dental and DNA testing confirmed all the remains were Gilbert's. After nearly 10 years of praying and waiting, he was home.
“I can't speak enough to the bravery, dedication and commitment of the people responsible for this,” Rand said. “Brave Americans did it all covertly, behind the scenes – it speaks to the true spirit of the American profession of arms.”
Video courtesy: 56th Fighter Wing
Gilbert Ravella and her family continue to move forward as they now prepare for a third and final interment of Gilbert's remains on Dec. 19 at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It's a lot for children to bury their dad three times,” Gilbert Ravella said. “But, I believe that God has just had his hand on them the whole way and they are amazing kids, whole, healthy, very mature.”
She credits much of the happiness and healthiness to her current husband, Ravella.
“He's such an answer to prayer,” Gilbert Ravella said. “He and Troy never knew each other, but they do now.”
Ravella said he thinks about Troy all the time.
“I think about the fact that I'm living his life. I do struggle with the guilt of that,” Ravella said. “I love his wife, and I share life's most intimate moments with his children and wife. I feel the responsibility to stand in the gap for him.”
Sometimes, like when the girls call him dad, he thinks about how, if Gilbert were still alive, it'd be him in that spot responding. Ravella said he knows how blessed he and Gilbert Ravella are to each have not one, but two great marriages in their lifetime.
Together, they've made sure the Gilbert and Ravella kids remember those they've lost.
“We talk about Troy and Andrea all the time with the kids,” Ravella said. “We're not replacing them; we do this together, in the role God calls us to.”
They also work to make sure the rest of the world remembers, as part of Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization created by Major Dan Rooney, a PGA golf professional. The organization raises funds for educational scholarships for children and spouses of wounded and fallen service members. Ravella raises funds as vice president for golf relations while Gilbert Ravella travels around the country speaking about her loss, her faith and her life.
“People respond with tears of compassion and pride that they're Americans,” Gilbert Ravella said. “That's what I want, to help build patriotism in country. The average American doesn't understand what a military family goes through, especially a fallen military family.”
Video courtesy: Folds of Honor
The Ravellas' forthcoming book grew from their blog, Our Journey to Healing.
Hope Found will available in April 2017.
The couple also is working on a book, “Hope Found,” which grew from their blog, Our Journey to Healing, and will be published this spring by WestBow Press. The book will detail the journey each of them faced dealing with the loss of their first spouse, the lessons they each learned and how they've joined their two broken families to build a new life together.
“We just share individually from our different journey of loss, how we learned from that and what it means to us,” Ravella said. “I hope people see that when life is so dark, God is with you. He never leaves us, he never forsakes us.”
In February, Gilbert Ravella will visit Texas Tech to share their story. Like the other times she's spoken in the past, she hopes sharing will help someone else who is struggling to find the light.
“There are lots of people who need to hear from others who have walked through darkness and come out whole on the other side,” Gilbert Ravella said. “If we can help people find hope in their own trial, then that doesn't waste all the pain.”