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Close-Knit Family Prepares to Honor Airman Killed in Okinawa

This Aug. 13, 2015 photo shows an aerial view of Henoko coast of Nago city, Okinawa, southern Japan. (Yu Nakajima/Kyodo News via AP)
This Aug. 13, 2015 photo shows an aerial view of Henoko coast of Nago city, Okinawa, southern Japan. (Yu Nakajima/Kyodo News via AP)

Gabriel Antonio Fuentes-Lebron's family was used to getting phone calls and texts from him at all hours of the day and night. He was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with the U.S. Air Force, 13 hours ahead of Jacksonville, but he saw no reason for that to loosen his family ties.

FaceTime, Snapchat, texts: His sister, his brother, his father knew to expect to hear from him, just about daily. And he made sure to call his mother every morning and night, and sent her a dozen texts or more each day, telling her about Okinawa, his friends, his beloved motorcycle and, especially, about this girl ...

The last time he called his mother, she told him that when he came back home she would cook him anything he wanted. Especially his favorite ham, egg and cheese sandwiches.

"I tell him I love him," Maribel Lebron said, "and he answered, 'I love you mama. I love you too.' That was the last words that we talked."

Fuentes-Lebron and his girlfriend, Savannah Cagle, a seaman apprentice in the Navy, died after a motorcycle crash May 18 in Okinawa. Their motorcycle collided with a car that turned into its path, according to Stars and Stripes.

Cagle, 20, was pronounced dead later that night. Fuentes-Lebron, 21, died 52 minutes later, shortly after midnight on May 19. Their bodies were flown back to the U.S. on the same plane, which stopped in Atlanta, her home, before landing in Jacksonville Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, family and friends gathered at Aaron and Burney Bivens Funeral Home in Orange Park to remember Fuentes-Lebron. There were tears in front of his flag-draped coffin, but in conversation there were plenty of smiles as he was recalled as a magnetic personality, a jokester, a leader, someone who stood up to bullies, someone who would -- as a cell-phone video proved -- do a dance in a shopping mall while wearing a giant bunny suit.

"Honestly, it's hard to be sad, because he's such a cool kid. There really aren't any bad memories," said his friend Jomalier Viera-Martinez, a 19-year-old airman first class who met Fuentes-Lebron while stationed with him at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. "He was charismatic, an authority figure -- he's young, but I look up to him a lot. To me he's a mentor. Probably the best mentor I ever had. I looked up to him, everything he did, the way he acted, the way he carried himself."

Fuentes-Lebron's brother Miguel, 25, who lives in Jacksonville, admitted he was down. "I'm very sad and a little depressed, probably. But I know he's in heaven, enjoying his motorcycle and having fun with his girlfriend. I know he's having a great time."

Visitors were asked to wear teal, the color of his favorite sports teams: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins. So his father, Miguel Angel Fuentes, who lives near Atlanta, wore a teal tie and teal high-topped Converse All Stars with his suit. His son, he said, would have liked that.

Fuentes-Lebron was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami when he was 9. Seven years later he came to Jacksonville, where he went to Atlantic Coast High School.

He was an airman first class who had been selected, in a competitive early promotion program, to become a senior airman. He was given that higher rank posthumously. He had wanted to join the military since he was a child: One uncle is retired from the Navy; another is in the Air Force. He eventually set his sights on the Air Force.

A recruiter was impressed, his mother said, but told him he needed to lose 10 pounds in a week before he could enroll. He was up for the challenge: Maribel Lebron made him chicken soup every day for lunch and dinner, and then took out the meat. For breakfast her son ate oatmeal, with water, not milk. "And if he got a little bit hungry during the day," she said, "two grapes. For one week."

He lost 14 pounds. "He made it," she said.

She has saved a text he sent her June 16, 2015, from the bus taking him to basic training in Texas.

"Showtime," it reads. "On the bus to Lackland AFB. I love you guys forever. In 10 minutes 50 people will get off this bus in 45 seconds and I'm one of them. I'm ready and pray for me and send me letters."

Plans call for some of Fuentes-Lebron ashes to be buried together with some of Cagle's in Savannah, Ga., said his aunt, Melissa Lebron. They will be in separate urns but the same plot.

Melissa Lebron's husband, Jose Antonio Lebron, an Air Force officer stationed in Honduras, flew to Japan to accompany the bodies home. He said it was a bittersweet mission: His last duty as a major was that trip. On Thursday, the day of his nephew's funeral, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. '

Fuentes-Lebron had planned to come back to America from May 24 to June 5, a visit he was trying to keep secret from his mother. She figured it out though, she said, smiling. During that trip, she learned, he was going to ask Savannah's father, Alan Cagle, for permission to marry his daughter.

"Oh, I never see Gaby more in love in his life than now," Maribel Lebron said. "His eyes are bright. My son has a beautiful smile, but after Savannah, it was more beautiful."

Look, she said, pointing to her bare arms: goosebumps.

"Some people in their life never know true love," she said. "My son, he knew true love. And I know Savannah knew her true love too."

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Air Force Japan