PHOENIX — The remains of an F-16 pilot who was killed in Iraq in 2006 have finally been returned, according to the U.S. Air Force.
Maj. Troy Gilbert crashed while leading two other jets in a strafing run against enemy forces that had shot down a helicopter near the town of Taji, Iraq, on Nov. 27, 2006, said Mike Martin, secretary of Air Force Public Affairs.
Gilbert, from Litchfield Park, Ariz., opted to use a 20-mm gun on his F-16 to help avoid civilian casualties and destroyed one of the trucks that was threatening coalition forces on the ground, Martin said. On his second approach, he flew even lower and hit the ground, killing him instantly.
Martin said al-Qaeda insurgents took Gilbert's body before coalition forces could secure the scene, leading to the 10-year struggle to get his remains back to U.S. soil.
Limited remains were recovered at the time of Gilbert's death, and a funeral was held in December 2006 at Arlington National Cemetery, where Gilbert was buried with full military honors. Additional scant remains were located six years later, Martin said.
But on Aug. 28 of this year, a tribal leader approached a U.S. military leader in Iraq claiming he had remains of a U.S. military pilot who had crashed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Martin said the tribal leader turned over evidence U.S. officials used for DNA testing at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System at Dover Air Force Base, Del. The medical examiner confirmed Gilbert's identity and the tribal leader then turned over Gilbert's remains as well as flight suit, flight jacket and parachute harness, to U.S. forces.
Gilbert's remains returned to Dover on Oct. 3 and the next day, the medical examiner confirmed his identity through dental examination and DNA testing, Martin said.
Gilbert's remains will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery with the other remains found in 2006 and 2012, Martin said.
Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, was at the dignified transfer of Gilbert's remains at Dover Air Force Base.
Rand was Gilbert's friend and his commanding officer at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base in Iraq at the time of Gilbert's death.
"Troy fought like a tiger in battle that day," Rand said in a statement. "No doubt, his actions on Nov. 27, 2006, illustrate greatness, but those actions that day aren't what made him great. What made him great was his commitment to adhere in every facet of his life to our three treasured core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do."
The major's widow, Ginger Ravella, and their five children also were at the transfer.
“The memory of my five children watching their father's flag-draped transfer case being unloaded from the cargo hold and carried by his brothers-in-arms back to American soil renews my hope for all mankind,” Ravella was quoted as saying in an Air Force statement.
It was "the closest we have been to Troy in 10 years," she said. "That was bittersweet."
Contributing: Follow Jerod MacDonald-Evoy on Twitter: @JerodMacEvoy