No one left behind

“My daddy, Captain Robert R. “Bear” Barnett, was a pilot in the United States Air Force. I was nine years old when he died. It was April 7, 1966. I remember coming home from school and seeing men in uniform sitting with my mother. I knew she’d been crying. She took my older sister and me into her bedroom and told us he wasn’t coming home. I ran back to school because I just wanted to see my teacher. It was all so surreal.

“We really didn’t get any information. We were told the plane he was flying had gone down in Southeast Asia, but the rest of the details were classified. We had a memorial service for him and they put a marker in the cemetery, but without his body, we didn’t have any closure. I used to have dreams that he would come to my classroom and that everyone had been wrong about him dying. As the years went on, the dreams faded. I have snippets of memories with him. Mostly, I remember him through the stories of the people that knew him well. He had a huge, generous heart. He’d pick up hitchhikers and he kept a log book of everyone he met. When he’d pass through a town, he’d look people up to see how they were, and see if they could share a meal. He never met a stranger. He’d leave to run a quick errand and wouldn’t come home for hours – he’d offer to help someone on a project or run into a friend. He was just that kind of man.

“I remember being in junior high and there was so much dissention about the Vietnam War. People were so critical of anyone who had fought in it. My mother told us not to tell anyone that our father had died over there. She wanted to protect us from being called names or spit on. It was so hard. He trained other pilots how to fly. He loved being in the Air Force. He died exactly the way he would have wanted to — serving his country fulfilled his life.  

“In 2005, they identified the crash site of my father’s B-57, in Laos. His plane had been shot down and they think that when he knew he was going to crash, he targeted the anti-aircraft gun site and he destroyed it. We were told that they were going to excavate the area and that these things could take a long time. We went to a family briefing about once a year with updates, but it didn’t seem like they were going to find anything. We were pretty disheartened.

“In December, I was sitting at my desk at work when my phone rang. I don’t usually answer unidentified calls, but when it said Dover, Delaware, I picked up. It was the Air Force Mortuary Service. They had identified Daddy’s remains and they wanted to set up a meeting to discuss funeral arrangements. I kept having him repeat it; I just couldn’t believe it. I hung up the phone and cried for an hour, before I could call my mom, my sister, my husband and children. It was just so much joy and relief, and confirmation that he isn’t with us. All those years of not having closure. We will have a full military funeral and burial for him on April 7 — fifty one years to the day that he died. I have so much pride in our government and our military. They promised us they’d never stop looking for him; that no one is left behind. We never forgot him… and they didn’t either.”


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