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Steve Gentz, left, and Judy Gentz, right, parents of Air Force First Lt. Joel Gentz, and Gentz's widow, Kathryn Gentz, center, listen to "Taps" being played during a military honor ceremony after his funeral at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chelsea, Thursday afternoon. Gentz was killed in a helicopter crash while on duty in Afghanistan June 9.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
As a combat rescue officer, Lt. Joel Gentz helped to save 39 lives before his helicopter was shot down by Taliban rockets in Afghanistan six weeks into his first deployment.
Thursday, flags around Michigan flew at half staff to honor Gentz, and friends, family members and colleagues spoke in remembrance of him at a funeral service at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Chelsea. The service followed a processional from Cole Funeral Chapel down Main Street past dozens of residents who turned out to honor Gentz.
Joel Gentz with his wife, Kathryn.
At the church, a flag-draped coffin was empty except for a navy blue Air Force jacket; Gentz's body was cremated following the June 9 crash.
A reflection of Gentz's good humor, speeches in his memory communicated more humorous and fond memories than heartache. They described Gentz's zest for life, passion and love for his family and wife, Kathryn.
By working to save the lives of fellow soldiers, Gentz was living out his dream career when he died, friends said. His job entailed leading personnel recovery operations in some of the most volatile areas in Afghanistan.
Gentz, 25, a 2002 Chelsea High School graduate, decided to become a pararescueman in college, friends said. He joined Air Force ROTC as a freshman while he earned his aerospace engineering degree at Purdue University, where he met his wife of two years.
After graduating from Purdue in 2007, Gentz received the same sort of intense training that a Navy Seal might. In the initial phase of the regimen, it's typical for 90 percent of those who sign up to drop out, military colleagues who trained with him said. But Gentz continued his chosen path, learning to jump out of planes from high altitudes and into extreme conditions to save lives, among many other skills.
Gentz "would stop at nothing to come and get you," said fellow combat rescue officer Chris Leonhardt.
Pararescuemen are "always outside the wire," said Lt. Col. Andrew Reisenweber, commander of the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, where Gentz was assigned.
In Vietnam, they became famous for rescuing downed pilots. In the nine-year conflict in Afghanistan, they often jump to rescue soldiers following the detonation of improvised explosive devices, fellow officers said. Gentz, described as charismatic and a natural leader, had earned the title of combat rescue officer. In that role, he had been supervising a team of pararescuemen as he rode onto the job in an Air Force HH-60 Pavehawk Helicopter, flying in support of a NATO medevac mission, according to a Department of Defense statement, when he and three other crew members died in the crash.
The crash happened near Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Helmand province's Sangin district.
Relatively few combat rescue officers and pararescuemen are on active duty, fellow officers said, and they are called to action constantly in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gentz's siblings, Rachel, 23, and Jared, 18, shared a number of memories of their brother. Rachel Gentz said she wanted to dispel rumors among his military friends that he was a "Department of Defense robot," which drew laughs from the packed church.
She described the various ways growing up in the family provided "urban" training opportunities leading up to his chosen career path, like doing reconnaissance work in the neighborhood at night while visiting relatives in Rochester, N.Y. After the siblings and cousins triggered motion-sensitive lights outside of one such neighborhood home, the group scattered, but he hit the ground and did an Army crawl to get away.
A number of speakers noted Gentz's compassion for others.
"Warriors without compassion are tyrants, and God knows we certainly have enough of them in the world right now," Reisenweber said.
Friends and family said they hoped to emulate him in their own words and actions.
"We always looked up to him," Rachel Gentz said, "and will try to have the compassion he always had. We'll miss you, Joel."
"Thank you for your beautiful smile," Gentz's mother, Judy, said, standing alongside his father, Steven. "We paid for it," she added, drawing laughs. "The smile in your heart we could not pay for - it's always been there."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Juliana Keeping is a reporter for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2528. Follow Juliana Keeping on Twitter
6/11/2010 - WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Department of Defense officials announced June 9 the deaths of four Airmen who were supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
They died June 9, near Forward Operating Base Jackson, Afghanistan, in a helicopter crash.
--Staff Sgt. Michael P. Flores, 31, of San Antonio, Texas, assigned to the 48th Rescue Squadron, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
--1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz, 25, of Grass Lake, Mich., assigned to the 58th Rescue Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nev.
--Staff Sgt. David C. Smith, 26, of Eight Mile, Ala., assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron, Nellis AFB.
--Senior Airman Benjamin D. White, 24, of Erwin, Tenn., assigned to the 48th RQS, Davis-Monthan AFB.
Died June 09, 2010 serving during Operation Enduring Freedom
26, of Eight Mile, Ala.; assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; died June 9, near FOB Jackson, Afghanistan, in a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crash. Also killed were Air Force Staff Sgt. Michael P. Flores, Air Force 1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz and Air Force Senior Airman Benjamin D. White.
Schwartz mourns airmen killed in medevac crash
By Scott Fontaine
The Pentagon has named the four rescue airmen who were killed June 9 when insurgents shot down their HH-60G Pave Hawk in southern Afghanistan.
Three airmen also were injured in the Pave Hawk incident, which occurred on the deadliest day for Air Force personnel at war in more than five years.
The four killed are:
* 1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz, 25, of Grass Lake, Mich.
* Staff Sgt. David C. Smith, 26, of Eight Mile, Ala.
* Tech. Sgt. Michael P. Flores, 31, of San Antonio.
* Senior Airman Benjamin D. White, 24, of Erwin, Tenn.
Flores and White were assigned to the 48th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Gentz was assigned to the 58th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Smith was assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis.
The wounded airmen are members of the 66th Rescue Squadron. They are being treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany.
The helicopter crashed as the airmen, assigned to 563rd Rescue Group, were performing a medical-evacuation mission in turbulent Helmand province.
The last time four or more airmen died in a single day was May 30, 2005, when a prop plane crashed in Diyala province, Iraq. A fifth passenger, Iraqi Air Force Capt. Ali Abass, also died in that crash.
It was the bloodiest day in Afghanistan for the Air Force since Nov. 23, 2003, when four airmen were killed in a helicopter crash in Parwan province, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks coalition deaths overseas.
The helicopter was providing support to British troops at the time of the attack, according to The New York Times. The newspaper, quoting a Taliban spokesman, said insurgents shot down the helicopter over the Sangin district bazaar with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Flores, a 32-year-old pararescueman, had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and deployed eight times during his 12 years in the service. White, a 24-year-old pararescueman, had served in the Air Force since July 2006 and was on his first deployment.
Gentz, 25, a combat rescue officer, studied aerospace engineering at Purdue University and enrolled in ROTC because he wanted to be a pilot and perform combat recue, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Smith, 26, was a flight engineer who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during his nine-year career.
Medevac crash victims returned home
By Scott Fontaine