PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
“I was 12 and sitting in the living room when there was a knock at the door. I answered it, and there was a lieutenant colonel, a man with a lot of stripes, I think a senior master sergeant, and a chaplain. And I knew right away something was wrong.”
Richard Kibbey, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and 45th Space Wing Antiterrorism Program Manager, grew up in a self-described ‘Leave it to Beaver’ 1950’s household.
“Dad was the kind of guy that spent quality time with each of us individually and together,” recalled Kibbey. “We went out camping, we did lots of family stuff. He was a woodworker. He built a plywood Santa Claus with a sled and reindeer for the roof of our house in Utah to light up during Christmas. He’d have my brothers and I come hold a hammer or nail something down in our unfinished basement so that we could always be doing something together. ”
‘Dad’ – Col. Richard ‘Dick’ Kibbey – was a C-124 Globemaster II pilot in the Air Force. He volunteered to train into another program, one to develop a pioneer program in helicopter rescue. After cross training into the rescue program, he got orders to Vietnam.
“The last few years before he went to Vietnam, he would be home for a week and then gone for a month,” said Kibbey. “Home for a week or two and then gone for two months, flying supplies into the war zone. He was gone often but when he was home, he would spend a lot of his time with us kids.”
Dick and three other Airmen were serving as HH-3E helicopter crew members with the 38th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron out of Thailand, when they were tasked with a rescue and recovery mission. Their mission: to rescue the pilot of a downed aircraft over North Vietnam. On February 6, 1967, no more than two weeks after trading ‘I love you’s’ and ‘See you soon’s’ with his wife and four children in the United States, Dick’s helicopter was hit by enemy ground fire after rescuing the downed pilot. The helicopter, a ‘Jolly Green Giant,’ experienced an internal explosion and crashed; leaving four of the five men onboard missing in action.
Kibbey’s mother, Mary Ann, was informed that Dick’s helicopter had been hit with enemy fire, crashed and that her loving husband was missing in action. Soon after, then 12-year-old Richard and his younger sister and brothers, Terry, Dave and John, became all too good at the waiting game.
“It was an ugly, ugly couple months of not knowing,” said Kibbey. “You hope to hear something and nothing ever comes. There’s no new news. Weeks turn into months, months turn into years. And then you get into a routine of secretly hoping, but not too much, because you don’t want to be disappointed. You soon start to realize this is just the way that it is.”
Kibbey soon followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force as a Security Forces officer.
“In 1979, when I was a lieutenant, my dad was about to come upon his twentieth-year of service,” said Kibbey. “It’s difficult to decide what to do for someone when they’ve served for 20 years but is missing in action; so the decision was made to retire him and give my mother his retirement pay. I went to San Antonio for the ceremony where my mother received my father’s Silver Star and Purple Heart decorations.”
Dick’s missing in action status was soon amended to deceased after no discoveries in numerous searches of the area thought to be the crash site. This was believed to be the very heart wrenching final chapter of his story, until September of 2015.
On one of the last visits to the Jolly Green Giant’s believed crash site, a local villager approached the military recovery team and handed them a box. The box contained bones and dog tags from several American Airmen, and it became clear that the Kibbey family’s final chapter had yet to be written.
“The man took the team into the mountains, and there was still wreckage from the helicopter in the trees,” said Kibbey. “They started doing some digging and found more evidence and refocused their efforts on this new site.”
On November 20, 2017, Kibbey and his two brothers were presented their father’s dog tags in an emotional ceremony in a hangar on Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The dog tags, now being housed in an oak flag box along with more of their father’s military belongings, served as the first stitch in the family’s healing.
In September of 2018, Kibbey received word from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency he had been waiting on for half of a century; his father’s remains were found at the crash site. Dick was finally to be brought back home and laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.
“I was asked when I wanted to schedule Dad’s ceremony,” recalled Kibbey. “I didn’t want to do it in the winter when it would be freezing and could be snowing or sleeting. I wanted something spectacular for him – so I picked cherry blossom time.”
In late March of 2019, cherry blossoms blooming overhead, Col. Richard Kibbey was reunited with his family in Washington D.C.
“It was a whirlwind four days,” said Kibbey, with a slight smile. “Over 40 members of our family came to the ceremony. My nephew, Nick, currently serves as an Air Force technical sergeant and proudly performed duties as the official escort for my father as he arrived home to us. The whole family was waiting at the airport when the plane landed.”
At the funeral home, the family had their fallen hero’s casket open, with his classic Air Force blue uniform laid within.
“You see that little wooden box right there?” asked Kibbey, pointing to a photograph of his father’s casket on his phone. “We decided we were going to take a little bit of the soil from my mom’s gravesite and take it to Washington D.C. to be buried with Dad.”
Mary Ann, who passed away in 1979, symbolically joined her husband at his gravesite; with plans for a subsequent visit to Arlington to bring soil from his grave back to Florida so they would be together there as well.
“We encouraged everyone who came to put something they wanted to, a memory, in the casket with Dad,” said Kibbey. “And then my father had a ‘Coming Home’ ceremony with full military honors on that Friday, March 29. It was a tremendous and emotional event for everyone.”
With the mystery of his father’s fate resolved, Kibbey looks back on his memories with him with a bit more relief in his heart and a smile on his face.
“I learned so much from my father,” recounts Kibbey. “He was an honorable man, a prankster and a strict disciplinarian, but in a kind way. He wanted to make us better people and make us more conscious of our responsibilities as citizens. Because of him, my siblings and I had a foundation of empathy for the world and empathy for others. It all paid off.”
Kibbey said he joined the Air Force because he knew it was a good life, and people took care of each other. Adding that his father’s role in the military also indirectly, if not directly, influenced his decision to serve.
“I had a lot of pride in carrying on my dad’s name, what he did and his ideals,” said Kibbey. “I still do. When I was little and saw my dad’s signature, I wanted to be just like him. So even today, I sign my name just like him.”
Looking through photos of his father in uniform, Kibbey held back tears and said, “I wanted to be just like my dad.”
“I think about Dad’s ceremonies every day,” said Kibbey. “So many actively serving military members came to his funeral. And we [the military] do that because we honor each other – especially if somebody falls.”
Half of a century of wonder has led to this day, a day when Kibbey can look back on these past 50 years and say with certainty, “When it comes to the thousands of service members still unaccounted for, the United States will not forget and they will never stop looking.”
In honor of Col. Richard ‘Dick’ Kibbey, Capt. Lucius L. Heiskill, Maj. Patrick Wood, Staff Sgt. Donald J. Hall and Chief Master Sgt. Duane Hackney.