AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — Luc Gruenther’s love of life was infectious and touched everyone he met, family and friends of the F-16 pilot recalled at a memorial service attended by more than 1,000 people.

“He loved Italy, he loved flying and he loved life,” said Romel Mathias, his mother. She was flanked by her sons, including one serving in the Air Force. “I’m proud of all his accomplishments, but most of all, I’m proud of the person he was.”

Maj. Lucas Frederick Gruenther died last week after his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed into the Adriatic Sea while he was on a night training mission. A former member of the 555th Fighter Squadron, he was serving as chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing at the time of the crash. The jet he was piloting belonged to the 510th Fighter Squadron.

“The only people who have reason to be sad today are the people who didn’t know ‘Gaza,’ ” said Capt. Rocky Jedick, using his friend’s call sign, during one of several tributes.

Gruenther’s effect on all those units was clear Wednesday. Capt. Nicholas Krajicek said the Northern California native had “a profound impact on everyone he met.”

That included Maj. Travis Winslow, with whom Gruenther shared outdoor adventures in Italy and other spots in Europe.

“I’m a changed man,” said Winslow, who will be leaving Aviano soon. “Already, I’m looking into backpacking at the next place.”

Gruenther’s wife, Cassy, shared most of his recreational adventures.

“He always had a mountain to climb, a new trail to run, new friends to meet, a new language to learn,” she said. “For Luc, there was never enough time in the day.”

Cassy Gruenther is due to give birth to the couple’s first child later this month. She said her husband had no regrets in life and challenged all of those attending to live life the way he did.

Gruenther flew more than 400 combat hours in support of ground troops in Afghanistan, including 17 combat sorties targeting enemy positions.

Gruenther, who was selected for promotion to major last year, was promoted posthumously, according to wing officials.

About 1,200 attended the service, held in Hangar 3 to accommodate the crowd.

Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force and a past wing commander at Aviano, flew down from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Dozens of Italian dignitaries also were in attendance.

Admiral Francesco Saverro of the Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard), who led the search for Gruenther and his jet, was also present. Rescuers started looking for the missing jet the night it went missing and continued to brave winter conditions for four days until the pilot’s body was eventually recovered.

Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist, the wing commander, called the Italian-led effort “the most impressive search-and-rescue effort I’ve ever seen.”

He said it was fitting that such a combined Italian and American effort was made on Gruenther’s behalf. The pilot became near-fluent in Italian during his stay in Italy and had numerous Italian friends. He and his wife were involved in a program the base established to foster relations between base personnel and their local communities.

Krajicek said Gruenther once described the evolution of his friendship with an Italian. It started off with a handshake, then a pat on the shoulder, then a hug “and later a full-out Italian kiss-kiss.”

“The Air Force lost somebody special the day we lost him,” Zobrist said. “And he will be missed by all.”

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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