NEWS 8 EXCLUSIVE
Maj. Troy Gilbert took off in his F-16 in November 2006 for a mission near Baghdad.
Now that U.S. forces have left Iraq, his family wonders who will look for his body to bring it home to Texas.
The 22nd combat mission for the Texas Tech grad would earn him the Distinguished Flying cross with valor, one of the nation's highest military awards.
He's credited with saving about 20 American commandos under fire.
"They say he was very calm," said the hero's mom, Kaye Gilbert. "He told this young man on the ground, 'I will not leave you.'"
According to witnesses, Maj. Gilbert destroyed one gun truck, then turned sharply to attack a second.
"Of course, he was already too low to begin with to do a strafing run," said his father, Ronnie Gilbert. "He went ahead and did it."
Kaye finished her husband's thought: "...because they were calling him from the ground saying, 'We're dying down here.' And when someone says, 'I'm dying down here,' you do everything you can."
The jet's tail hit the ground. Maj. Gilbert died instantly.
Later, when Ronnie and Kaye Gilbert learned why their son flew so low, it would only add to the cruelty of their ordeal.
It began just hours after the crash.
Insurgents posted a video on the Internet, showing men walking on the wings of the shattered jet. The cockpit canopy lay off to the side.
Three-hundred yards away, the pilot's broken body lay at the end of his unopened parachute. By the time U.S. forces reached the plane, Maj. Gilbert's body was gone.
The cockpit contained a tiny bit of tissue — enough for confirmation of death and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We have no reason to believe our son is not dead," Ronnie Gilbert said. "But we have seen videos of his body intact."
More pain would follow.
The next year, on Sept. 11, 2007, insurgents released a second video. This time, a produced propaganda piece showed close-ups of Maj. Gilbert's badly decomposed corpse exhumed from a grave, still in a flight suit. It displayed his military ID, and singled him out as "America's baby killer."
It was anguishing proof that his body still existed.
"His whole body is still over there somewhere, buried in a shallow grave," Ronnie Gilbert said. "All we're asking for is: Bring him home."
"For five years! Five years we have been waiting patiently," Kaye Gilbert cried. "Patiently waiting for the Air Force and everyone over there to do their business. Find our son."
When the U.S. pulled out of Iraq in December, the family could wait no longer. Maj. Gilbert's sister in Arlington questioned the Pentagon's prisoner of war/missing personnel office.
"Well, if our troops are no longer there, who is looking for him?" Rhonda Jimmerson asked. "Who is putting that effort in?"
The answer they got is that no one is looking.
Officials told them there's no search for Troy Gilbert because he is listed as killed in action, "body accounted for."
Kaye Gilbert described her reaction. "Shock. Total shock. Anger. I felt just like 100 years of service this family has given to the Air Force. I feel like we have been tossed to the wind."
The Gilberts spent their lives on Air Force bases — Ronnie as a senior master sergeant; Kaye worked as a secretary.
Rhonda Jimmerson said the family didn't want to raise the issue during the war.
"I don't want to say it was swept under the rug, bBut I think it was just forgotten," Jimmerson said. "Other, more important things, came up at the time. We were fighting a war."
Now Troy Gilbert's family fights to have his status changed to "unaccounted for" so the search can be reopened.
And they want his story told.
About how his Christmas presents and a Bible reading for his wife and five children arrived the same day casualty officers knocked on the door.
And about the reason Maj. Troy Gilbert flew his jet fatally close to the ground that day. They say he told radio operators he wanted to avoid hurting innocent civilians who were near the insurgent fighters.
The Gilberts say the Iraqis also owe their son a debt of gratitude.
Kaye Gilbert grimaces as she forces her feelings into words.
"And since my son is partially in the ground in Arlington, one or two inches maybe, but 99 percent is still in the ground over there, please, please help us get him home," she said.
The Gilberts say they don't want anyone else to put their life at risk to find their son's remains. They've been told that Americans did search for days after the crash.
But now that the war is over, they believe there is more that could be done to bring Maj. Troy Gilbert back home.
Officials at the Department of Defense have agreed to meet with his family later this month.