51 years later, Texas pilot comes home and is laid to rest

A Texas Air Force pilot who was killed 51 years ago had a bittersweet homecoming Friday. Captain Robert Russell Barnett was shot down while flying a covert bombing mission during the Vietnam War.

An Air Force honor guard carried the remains of Captain Russell Barnett down to a shaded grove at the Texas State Cemetery Friday morning. Friends and family quietly stood as his flag draped casket passed by a row of American flags held by the Patriot Guard. 

At that moment his daughter Debra could only think of one thing to say to her father.

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"I've missed you, and I'm glad you are finally here,” said Debra Coffey.

As the graveside service got underway, a formation of T-38 fighter jets flew over.

The ceremony was scheduled to take place Friday because it’s exactly 51 years to the day that Captain Barnett was killed. "This family has been grieving for 51 years, and now it is time, go and grieve no more,” said family friend Dixie Swanson.

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A native Texan, Russell Barnett attended Baylor and lettered in football. He joined the Air Force after graduating in 1956. His call sign was “Bear’ and he flew B- 57 bombers.

On April 7th, 1966 while on a classified mission over Laos he was shot down and declared killed in action.

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Captain Barnett's remains were recovered back in 2015 after his crash site had been found and excavated.  It was part of a joint effort by the defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. "But what an amazing journey that it took of hundreds and hundreds of people to go and to search and to dig, and to find and to analyze and to validate and to bring Captain Barnett home to his family,” said Air Force Chaplain Col. Jim Browning.

For the past five decades Bear Barnett's story had ended with his last mission, hidden deep in the jungle of a foreign country. Now with full military honors, for him and his family, closure has finally arrived and a Texas hero is home.

"It’s an unbelievable day of celebration for our country, and for those who serve our country, most especially for uncle Russell and our family to be honored by this and just everyone here and what a glorious day it is,” said Barnett’s niece Terri Patrick Cox.

There’s  currently about 1,600 American service members still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The largest numbers of unaccounted service members are from World War II and Korea. The combined total from those conflicts is just over 80-thousand.