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Body of American killed fighting in Ukraine has finally returned home, family says

<i>Telegram</i><br/>Joshua Jones
Joshua Jones

By Dave Alsup, CNN

More than three months after the body of an American killed fighting alongside the Ukrainian military was retrieved from opposing forces, his family says his remains are back in the US after an arduous wait.

Joshua Jones, a 24-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, traveled to fight alongside Ukraine after the Russian invasion began last February. He was killed in August, according to officials with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), a self-declared Russian-backed separatist region.

In October, after working behind the scenes for weeks with government officials for the return of their son, the family learned Jones’ body had been transferred to Ukrainian custody by the Russian military, much to the family’s relief. In a tearful phone call, Jones’ father, Jeff Jones, told CNN, “We got him back!”

“I cannot tell you what a burden is lifted off this family,” said Jones at the time. “I couldn’t give up that hope.”

But for Jones’ family, it’s been an odyssey getting their son home, taking more than three months before his arrival Tuesday.

His body was flown home by the Ukrainian government in a coffin made of pressed wood, which took his family four minutes to open with a flathead screwdriver and a pair of pliers at a funeral home, according to Ed Gossett, Jones’ stepfather, who wanted to make one last visual identification of Jones.

“I used to give him hell for having the tattoos,” Gossett told CNN — yet Joshua’s tattoos helped with making one final identification of the remains.

The family had expected the body to arrive Monday, but it spent more than a day held up in US Customs in New York, they said.

“These past three or four days, he had some flight miles,” Gossett noted.

Identification process drags out

Nicknamed “Tactical Jesus” for his long hair, beard and devout faith, Jones felt the call to fight in Ukraine more than 10 months ago. He was able to stay in touch with his family, with his mother, Misty Gossett, characterizing her last conversation with her son as “fun.” They received a photo from Jones three days before his death showing his long beard and ponytail, she told CNN in October.

But with his death, Jones became one of a number of Americans who have been captured or killed in Ukraine since the outbreak of war last year.

DPR officials said in August that Jones’ body had been transferred to a mortuary in the region, and they were ready to discuss a transfer of his remains.

The transfer took place just north of Vasylivka, in the Zaporizhzhia region, between Ukrainian and Russian-controlled Ukraine during a two-hour ceasefire. A CNN team witnessed the transfer.

Jones’ family received images of the body and were able to make an initial identification, as did Ukrainians who were able to identify the body by Jones’ tattoos and other identifying characteristics. However, processing delays soon began.

His family says the Ukrainian government asked for permission to perform an autopsy for a war crimes investigation, which they approved.

More than a week later, a DNA sample was needed from Jones’ father and was sent, according to Jones’ stepfather. A second DNA sample was then requested from his mother, which also was sent.

Hopes of getting him home quickly began to slip away as the two DNA tests came back inconclusive, they said. Barriers of language, time and distance — compounded by the challenges of communicating with a country caught in the middle of a war — began to take their toll.

In November, a spokesperson at the Ukrainian embassy told CNN there is a process of identifying the remains since Jones, they claimed, was unrecognizable, and they wanted to ensure that the correct remains were returned to the family.

The family had planned a funeral for December 3 and the service was held without his body present. “It was needed to start the closure,” Ed Gossett said. “When we originally planned the date, we expected for him to be back by then.”

The following week, Misty Gossett had a tense text message exchange with an official from the International Foreign Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine who tried to explain the delay in processing the body.

“Pay attention to the fact that a number of Ukrainian deceased soldiers is enormous, their parents and wives want to identify their bodies as hard as you do, however we have only one institution of Office of Chief Medical Examiner and people wait for half a year to achieve results,” the text said.

Frustrations mounted, Ed Gossett said, as their calls for assistance to US congressional leaders and agencies received little more than promises to further investigate.

A new year and eventual success

On December 21, the Gossetts received an email from the US Embassy in Kyiv as they awaited the results of a third DNA test. More bad news.

“We understand that the laboratory made three attempts to get a DNA profile from the sample taken first,” the email said.

“Unfortunately, their attempts failed and the investigator had to get another sample to the lab. As far as we understand, this has been done and the lab is working on getting a DNA profile from the new sample,” the email said, adding they would be notified of any results.

Experts have noted the challenges the Ukrainians might be facing with identification amidst the brutal fighting.

“If the body has been extensively burned, the usual tissue or fluid or blood samples can be compromised,” Richard Mathies, a biophysical chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, told CNN. “However, if samples are taken from bone or teeth by drilling into the marrow or internal structure of the object, the DNA analysis should work fine.”

The first three failed tests were from bone and teeth, the International Foreign Legion told the Gossetts, which compounded their frustration.

Christmas went by, then New Year’s, with no word, the Gossetts said. But in mid-January, Misty Gossett received an email from the Legion on the results of a fourth DNA test — finally, a positive result.

Jones’ body was then on its way, slowly making its journey from Ukraine to Poland to New York to Atlanta and finally home to Memphis.

A Ukrainian delegation is expected to arrive later this month and give commendations for Jones’ service, the family said.

In the meantime, Ed Gossett is looking back at the suddenness of Joshua Jones’ announcement in March that he intended to head to the conflict zone.

“He came over the day before his birthday. We were having a family event. He said he was going over there to fight and shipped out the next day.” The family never had time to process his decision, Gossett said. Then he was gone.

On Tuesday night, Ed Gossett and his family went to bed knowing Joshua was near them for the first time in almost a year.

“Now is relief,” he said.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.

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