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Profile of a Hero: Major Luc “Gaza” Gruenther

On January 28th, during a training mission off the coast of Italy, Luc “Gaza” Gruenther’s F-16 fighter went down in bad weather.  His body was found several days later after a massive search by Italian and US personnel and assets.

Luc leaves behind a wonderful wife, Cassy, who is expecting the birth of their first child in the next couple weeks.  Luc and Cassy were a vital part of our squadron at a previous assignment when Luc (we called him “SHIN” back then) was a FAIP.  This is where most folks stop the story.  “What’s a FAIP?” they ask.

I can give you a short official description.  FAIPs are “First Assignment Instructor Pilots,” guys and gals who, immediately after finishing pilot training, get selected for instructor training, then spend the next three years teaching students before being assigned to front-line weapons systems.

That description, though accurate, just doesn’t do the FAIP moniker justice.  At Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), FAIPs were the backbone of the organization.

It wasn’t just because folks like SHIN would throw down three sorties a day in a greenhouse-like cockpit that regularly exceeded 140 degrees in the North Texas sun.  It wasn’t just because they did the workhorse jobs in the flight while us graybeards held the line as assistant gradebook officers.  It wasn’t just because they were the repositories of knowledge, keeping us old guys honest.  And it wasn’t just because they were the Snack-Os… though to be honest, that was a lot of it.

No, FAIPs were the backbone of ENJJPT, because like the LPA (Lieutenants’ Protective Association) in most operational squadrons, the “FAIP Mafia” brought energy and life into the squadron, reminding us one-eyed old fat men why we were here in the first place – to get the business done.  FAIPs were the first to raise their hands for anything, whether it was jumping into an empty seat, spending extra hours to help a struggling student study for tomorrow’s checkride, hanging out well past formal release to get the schedule finalized and the gradebooks square, volunteering for yet another cross-country, or leading a busload of school kids on a tour.  They were the ones organizing the squadron party, then flipping burgers at it.  They were the ones kicking the other wing’s butt in every organized sport, then leaving us with bruises that night at the crud table.  Best of all, they were the ones who reminded us how much we loved our job.

This is how I remember SHIN.  He was a standout FAIP, easy to pick out of the crowd and not just because of his physical presence.  SHIN was absolutely, 100% “in” for whatever he was doing at the time.  First in/last out in the squadron whether it was as a line IP or in check section, SHIN had a contagious energy that infected not just his students but also the crustiest “seasoned” IP.  He was a tireless volunteer for everything, not in some lame attempt to make himself look good, but because he wanted to help out.  When our leadership got together to talk about a project that absolutely needed to succeed, SHIN’s name invariably rose to the top of our list.  He was guy I could point newbies to and say, “Follow him.”

What made him especially memorable is that he not only excelled at the heavy duties we gave him, but did it all with a true cheerfulness.  It wasn’t a pasted-on smile, but something that came from within.  The guy was a poster child for positive attitude.  One of the best memories I have of SHIN involved that outlook on life, and it wasn’t even at ENJJPT.  It happened after he and Cassy had left ENJJPT for the F-16, and while at training, their apartment caught fire.  I remember calling SHIN to see how he and Cassy were doing, and though I don’t remember the details of the conversation that well, what I do remember is that the guy  didn’t sound like someone who had lost anything.  As always, he had that positive attitude, an attitude that was contagious even through a phone line.  I’ve counseled more than enough folks to know when they’re putting on an act, and he wasn’t.  He was genuinely happy, and had no worries about how they’d get through this challenge.  I had called to see how we could help, and instead, he’d helped me.  Luc in a nutshell.

That’s how I’ll remember Luc:  Big smile on his face, moving forward to greet folks and energizing them into action.

The loss of Luc has hit our family hard – our immediate family and our extended Air Force family.  It’s even harder because he is the third former member of our squadron we’ve lost in as many years.  Flying fighters is a dangerous business.

Remember Luc.  Remember all the wonderful men and women like him we’ve lost in the service to our nation over almost two and a half centuries.  But please also remember the families.  Since the loss of Luc, I’ve told several of my comrades in arms that we need to recognize that the families are the ones who really sacrifice, not us. As I heard a chaplain say at another funeral a couple weeks ago, “We volunteer. They get drafted.”  In one of the most famous stories of sacrifice in the Bible, we should realize that Isaac had the easy job. The toughest role in that story was Abraham, who put his loved one on the altar. That’s what a servicemember’s wife, husband, kids, and parents do every time he or she straps that jet on, shoulders a ruck and rifle, or steps out on a deployment.  It took me way too long to realize that in my career, and I wish I had learned it earlier.  It’s humbling that I often get thanked by folks for my service – but it’s our families that truly deserve recognition.

Please join me in praying for Luc’s family, especially Cassy and their soon-to-be born daughter, Serene.  If you would like to post a remembrance or contribute financially, the family has established a website for that:

———— UPDATE ———-

The National Red River Valley Association – the “River Rats” – of which Luc was an active member (as am I), in conjunction with its charitable arm, the Air Warrior Courage Foundation (AWCF), has established another way to donate.  Through their 501(c)3 organization, they have established a college 529 to accept tax deductible contributions for his daughter’s college education.

The Rats pass on the following instructions:

It is very important to follow the directions below, particularly the “In Memory…” verbiage.

All contributions are tax deductible.

There are two ways to give.

1. Send a check to the AWCF, P.O. Box 877, Silver Spring, MD 20918. In a note or on the check say “In Memory of Major Lucas “Gaza” Gruenther.”

2. Using a credit card. Go to our home page at . On the Home page is a DONATE button. Click it and it will take you to a page with a GIVE DIRECT button. Click it and fill in the blanks. In the COMMENTS block put in “In Memory of Major Lucas “Gaza” Gruenther”.

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