It’s amazing how so little can mean so much. Stick with me here and you’ll see what I mean. And you’ll agree.
In 1966, exactly 51 years ago Friday, a B-57 piloted by Air Force Capt. Robert Russell “Bear” Barnett, 32, was shot down in Laos. He was listed as presumed dead, body not recovered.
Barnett later was honored and his family was presented his medals at a Fort Sam Houston memorial service in San Antonio. A memorial marker there honors his service and remembers his life.
There was no funeral, no burial. And for the Barnett family, no closure.
Just before noon Thursday, a commercial flight bearing a flag-draped casket rolled through a ceremonial archway of water as it headed to Gate 14 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. At the gate, the casket came down a conveyor belt — appropriately right under where it said “American” on the side of the plane — to an awaiting military honor guard. The casket contained Barnett’s recently identified remains.
At the time of his death, Barnett, a native of Gladewater in East Texas and a former Baylor football player, had been divorced from his wife, Bettye, for about a year. On Wednesday, near the Texas State Cemetery plot where Barnett’s remains will be buried in an 11 a.m. service Friday, Barnett’s former wife got emotional as she recalled getting the news of his death while she was at work a half-century ago.
“I knew the minute the chaplain walked in,” Bettye Barnett Draker said, choking up these many years later. “I knew immediately. In fact, I just took out running.”
She said Barnett had sent the family an Easter bouquet and was due home in about two weeks when he died. The bouquet arrived with a card on which he had drawn an Easter egg with him peering over the top, Draker recalled.
Though divorced (they had married in 1952) because of the challenges of military life, they planned to try again, she said: “We were going to get back together and try to mend our family, because it was rough all those years me being my myself.”
“He said, ‘We’re going on a second honeymoon, and we’re going to take the girls with us and we’re going to go down to Port Aransas and play on the beach and gather some shells, and we’re going to ride dune buggies up and down the shore,” she said.
It never happened, and his ex-wife remarried after his death.
The girls now are Debra Coffey of Fort Worth and D’Lynn Mims of San Antonio, all grown up. Debra was 9 and D’Lynn was 11 when their dad died in Southeast Asia. Like their mom, they have detailed memories of the long-ago day they got the devastating news.
“My sister and I had come from school,” Coffey said. “And my mother was there with the military chaplain and some friends.”
The years went by and the family held on to hope that Barnett’s remains some day would be found. Their hopes were buoyed when the Air Force notified them the crash site had been located in Laos. The daughters were flown to Washington for Defense Department briefings about the effort.
“Up until that time, it never occurred to me that they would ever work so hard to find Daddy’s crash site and excavate it and bring him home,” Coffey said.
But these things take time. The crash site was found in 2005. Barnett’s remains were recovered June 18, 2015, and identified Aug. 16, 2016.
On Dec. 15, the family was notified that an inventory of items excavated at the crash site — an area just over 1,000 feet by 300 feet — included a flight suit, the heel of a boot, a lighter, some other garments and parts of the airplane.
“But to specifically and undeniably identify our father, they found a molar,” Coffey said. “They found his tooth.”
“I cried for about an hour,” she said of getting the news that remains had been found, though she didn’t initially ask what remains.
Coffey remembers her dad as “very strict and he was Air Force all the way, but yet very funny and very loving and generous.”
Mims said he taught her to water ski and took her on other adventures, “He and I were buddies.”
And she recalled serious talks about the purpose and risk of his military service. He had enlisted in 1956.
“It’ll be a good feeling to be able to honor his memory,” Mims said, a single tear on her right cheek.
Longtime family friend Dixie Swanson of Knoxville, Tenn., came for the Thursday casket arrival and the Friday burial. She was the flower girl when Barnett married Draker in 1952.
“When I was 5, one night be picked me up and pointed to the moon and he said, ‘I’m going to fly there one day,’” Swanson recalled Thursday. “He was my childhood hero.”
Janie Bartosiewicz of Grand Prairie, Barnett’s younger sister, said it was wonderful to see the casket come off the plane.
“That was my mother’s heart’s desire, that they would bring him home,” she said. Their mother died in 1980.
Family members said they are deeply thankful for the military officials who never gave up on bringing Barnett home.
“They said that they would leave no man behind, and they didn’t,” Coffey said Wednesday near the Texas State Cemetery plot where Barnett’s journey will end.
Thursday’s casket arrival, Coffey said, triggered “a flood of emotions” about her dad and the nation for which he gave his life. “It was just hope, liberty. It was closure,” she said. “It was, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.’”
When buried Friday, the casket also will include an Air Force uniform, Barnett’s medals, a cross, an Easter card and photos of family members and moments Barnett missed because of giving his life for his country.
At the funeral home where the casket was brought Thursday for the night, Coffey and I marveled at how meaningful a single molar could be.
“It’s him,” she said.
By Ken Herman