Texas Air Force pilot receives proper burial 50 years later

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An Air Force pilot from Texas shot down during the Vietnam War is finally coming home.

Captain Robert Russell Barnett's remains were not recovered until now. It was the news his daughter waited five decades to hear.

At work in Grapevine, Debra Coffey took a call on a busy Friday afternoon in December.

“My phone rang. It said Delaware,” she recalled. “I didn’t recognize the number, so I just went ahead and answered the call.”

The voice at the other end of the line was calling from Dover Air Force Base and had news.

“We've identified your father's remains and we're ready to bring your daddy home,” Coffey says the caller told her. “Those were words that you wait to hear for a long time. I waited 50 years to hear those words, that Daddy's coming home.”

Coffey was 9 years old on April 7, 1966. It was the day her father, Air Force Captain Robert Russell Barnett was shot down on a classified mission during the Vietnam War.

“I saw somebody in uniform and everybody was crying,” Coffey said. “And we were told then, my mother told my sister and I what happened.”

But back then, the military only told Coffey's family that her dad was shot down over Southeast Asia. Decades later, she learned the crash happened in Laos and that other pilots saw Captain Barnett's plane go down under fire. No parachutes deployed.

“His call sign was Bear,” Coffey said. “He went to Baylor University.”

Coffey grew up piecing together memories of her dad through pictures and other people's stories. He had a marker at Fort Sam Houston but no gravesite.

As a little girl, Coffey fantasized her dad would simply walk back into her life.

“You still always have that wish that I'm sitting in my classroom and I'm in the fourth grade and he comes to my classroom door and they were wrong,” Coffey said.

Years later, the military located a crash site. Last year, a team recovered human remains and a dog tag belonging to Captain Barnett's co-pilot. But it wasn't until December 16, 2016, that the military could confirm to Coffey it identified her dad.

“I cried a little bit, probably a lot when the Air Force called me,” Coffey said. “But they were tears of joy. It's such a relief.”

A full burial can now happen 50 years after Captain Barnett's death, though still not too late for his family.

“I'm not that little girl anymore,” she said. “I'm a grown woman and very excited to have closure and have Daddy home.”

Coffey says the military plans to meet with her family next month to go over how they positively identified Captain Barnett. She hopes to learn at that time when he will be brought home for burial.

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