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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Airmen, civilians, family and friends honored the life and memory of U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and combat veteran during a memorial service Feb. 6 at Aviano Air Base.
Maj. Lucas "Gaza" Gruenther, a pilot assigned 31st Fighter Wing, went missing during a nighttime training mission over the Adriatic Sea Jan. 28. In the days that followed, Italian and U.S. authorities collaborated as part of in an immense search effort to locate Gruenther. The search ended Jan. 31 when Gruenther's body was recovered by an Italian vessel.
During the memorial service, many spoke of his inspiring nature and enthusiastic spirit, recalling his selfless and admirable qualities that he exemplified in his everyday life.
"Nothing I can say can put the emotional stress on the life and the hope and the ambition that he has given everyone he's known," said Maj. Travis Winslow, a 555th Fighter Squadron pilot. "He is the quintessential role model."
A California native, Gruenther, 32, is survived by his wife Cassy and daughter Serene. He also leaves behind an inspiring body of accomplishments, many of which were shared before a crowd of about 1,000 supporters from around the Air Force and Italian communities who came to pay their respects.
"He'd want nothing more than for us to get together celebrate his life," said Capt. Nicholas Krajicek, a 555th FS pilot. "I think we can offer Gaza no greater tribute than to look at his life and just be inspired."
One of Gruenther's many aspirations was to become a flight commander in his home squadron, the "Triple Nickel" Lt. Col. John Peterson, the 555th FS commander, explained how Gaza had been selected not only to be a flight commander, but an instructor pilot as well; however, he never had the chance to perform the role.
"Even though Gaza did not become an instructor pilot in the Triple Nickel, he sure did teach us a lot, and even though he didn't become or hold the position or title of flight commander in the Triple Nickel," said Peterson, "he was a flight commander of life."
Among his many achievements, Gruenther completed more than 2,640 hours of flying time to include 400 combat hours. He taught himself Italian, which he used to help cultivate bonds between the Americans and Italians living in his community and on base.
In a recent interview, Gruenther described his enthusiasm for his host country, "I love being a part of the Italian culture," he said. "The more time I spend in Italy, the more I realize how much this region and its residents have to offer."
Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley approved the posthumous promotion of Gruenther to major, which the pilot was already waiting to officially pin on this year after he was selected for major during a December 2011 promotion board.
During the ceremony, his wife was presented two medals on the major's behalf. The Aerial Achievement Medal was awarded for efforts during Gruenther's deployment to Afghanistan, where he performed 17 Operation Enduring Freedom combat missions, providing U.S. and coalition ground forces with close air support. The Meritorious Service Medal was presented for distinguished service as 31st Fighter Wing chief of flight safety and as 555th Fighter Squadron assistant chief of training.
"He was clearly a special man -- just take a look around," said Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, the 31st Fighter Wing commander ,as he gestured to the brimming hangar. "He was a professional Air Force officer and a wonderful human being.
"As wing commander, I must thank the hundreds and thousands of Italians and Americans involved in the intensive search and rescue that took place last week," Zobrist continued. "It was one of the most impressive search and rescue efforts I've ever seen. I know Gaza would be proud of the relationship between Italy and America, and he was a part of that."
"He lived a live full of adventure and full of love," his wife said. "If he were here, he would challenge each and every one of you to go climb that mountain you've been waiting to climb, he would tell you to plan that trip you haven't planned, he would tell you to call that friend you've been thinking about, and he would tell you to be sure to tell your loved ones you love them every day.
"So I challenge you now, for him, and in his memory," she concluded.
"As per usual, life is good," - Maj. Lucas "Gaza" Gruenther.