JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. --
“Last summer my dad called me and said, ‘Guess what? They identified Grandpa’s body.’”
The news came as a big surprise to Tech. Sgt. Nick Kibbey, an aerial combat videographer from the OL-C 1st Combat Camera Squadron at March Air Force Base, Ca. “[I thought] you’ve got to be kidding me," Kibbey said. "He’s finally coming home.”
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, Col. Richard A. Kibbey was traveling with three other service members aboard an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant, on a recovery mission over North Vietnam. The crew safely landed and found the pilot of a downed aircraft.
Moments after they took off with the rescued pilot aboard, enemy ground fire shot down the helicopter, killing Richard Kibbey and three others on board.
The remains of the deceased crew were irretrievable due to the unforgiving Vietnamese jungles and hostile conflict. When the war ceased, a second effort was made for retrieval, but the mission ended in failure.
The Kibbey family received no closure, no definite answer to connect them with their loved one -- only the knowledge of his disappearance and presumed death.
“I was the one who answered the door when the officials arrived at my house,” said Colonel Kibbey's son, also named Richard, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and Nick Kibbey's uncle. "They told us my father had gone down with his crew, but were unsure of how or of his whereabouts."
In 1980, Colonel Kibbey’s name was added to the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, along with other unaccounted-for individuals’ names.
By the late '80’s, the Vietnamese Office for Missing Persons and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency formed a partnership to help each other excavate and identify all missing individuals from the Vietnam conflict, including Vietnamese soldiers.
Over the years and with the help of improving technology, the partnership has yielded success, slowly chipping away at the number of unaccounted-for persons with newly exhumed human bones, artifacts, and teeth.
With the protection of enamel, one single tooth can withstand decades-long exposure to the jungle environment in Vietnam and provide clues to its owner’s identity.
On Aug. 6, 2018, one such recovered tooth supplied vital mitochondrial DNA, enabling forensic scientists to make a positive genetic match to Col. Kibbey.
Like opening the door decades before, the younger Richard Kibbey would be the one to answer the phone to hear of his father’s identification. Because of the efforts of VNOSMP and the service members working for DPAA, his father would finally return home.
Ruben Garza, mortuary specialist for the Past Conflicts Division of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, introduced himself over the phone, and informed Kibbey of his father’s identification. As soon as Kibbey could, he sent out the exciting news out to the family.
Fifty-two long years after Col. Richard Kibbey’s disappearance, a rosette was placed next to his name at the NMCP to signify “accounted for.”
"My uncle called me and asked if I wanted to escort my grandfather home," Nick Kibbey said. "I said, 'Of course I want to! That’s not something you even have to ask. It would bring me great pride.'”
Nick flew out to DPAA headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, to accompany his grandfather's remains for the rest of the journey. He also had the opportunity to tour the forensic facilities where the remains were analyzed.
"It was really profound being there and seeing my grandfather's remains in person. It puts things in a different perspective," said Nick. "I found myself thinking, 'Wow, this is actually happening. It’s not a dream."
Nick watched as his grandfather’s casket was loaded onto the plane, ready for its final destination. Nick prepared to travel to what would be his grandfather’s final resting point: Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
On March 29, 2019, Col. Kibbey, escorted by family members, U.S. Air Force Honor Guardsmen, and U.S. Air Force Band members, was honorably interred.
"Through these types of tragedies, people really come together," Nick said. "The DPAA and its partnerships really cared about making this moment as special and organized as possible."
The DPAA mission continues, with permanent active-duty military and government civilians working full time, year-round to try to bring overdue closure to more families.
In 1973, 2,646 Americans were unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War, with approximately equal numbers reported as missing in action or killed in action/body not recovered. Since then, more than 1,000 Americans have been identified and returned home to their families for burial with full honors.
“When members join the service, they raise their right hand and promise to defend this nation," Garza said. "In turn, it is our nation’s promise that if they ever go missing, we will do everything we can to bring them home until every last American is returned.”
The Kibbey story marks one more promise kept.
“I always had this reoccurring thought that my dad was living in some Vietnamese village with another family, because he could never get home," retired Lt. Col. Richard Kibbey said. "You just never know until they call you and tell you the truth."