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Profiles In Badassery: Joel Gentz

Joel Gentz and his wife Kathryn
Joel Gentz and his wife Kathryn

Sunday night the United States military finally caught Osama bin Laden. I was a senior at Purdue when 9/11 happened, but we were hunting bin Laden long before that. The night before 9/11 I had been working in the production studio at Stewart Center shooting a TV show, and I didn't have class until 12:30 the next day. Therefore, I slept in as usual and didn't get up until about 10am. I had no idea what was going on until I turned on my TV and ESPN (I had been watching Sportscenter last) showed one of the towers falling.  Immediately called my mother, who was watching my nephew during the day back then and would know what was going on) to find out what happened. For me, like many of you, I remember almost every detail of that day, right down to the fact that I had to work my university job in the production studio that night and I relished it because we had no active cable TVs down there, so I could go underground and get away from everything.

This week was the culmination of that. Yesterday was the day in the news cycle where we hit the "well, we really should have tried harder to catch him alive and bring him to trial because now it is tantamount to murder" stage, but I don't care. Personally, I would have brought his body back to the U.S., dragged it through Times Square and the Canyon of Heroes with a ticker-tape parade, then mounted it above the White House fireplace like a deer's head. If you have a different opinion, well, you're wrong.

The point in all this as an intro to our weekly Profile In Badassery is that one of our own is no longer on earth because of fools like bin Laden. Osama would not have thought twice about killing today's subject, in fact, he would have rejoiced (and probably did) in his death like we rejoice in bin Laden's. As we celebrate the 142nd birthday of our beloved University today, let us not forget Joel Gentz, a brave alumnus who laid down his life as part of the War on Terrorism.

Who was Joel Gentz?

First, I have to give a special thanks to reader Adam Rietz for bringing my attention to 1st Lt. Joel Gentz. Adam originally contacted me on Tuesday while I was still in Miami suggesting Joel as a subject for a Profile In Badassery, and he was kind enough to do most of the research on Joel's background while I was enjoying the end of my vacation.

Joel was a 2007 graduate of Purdue (with honors) and was a fellow Air Force ROTC member with Adam. He later went on to attend the United States Air Force Para-rescue training program. To me, this make him more of a badass. I have enough of a fear of heights that you're going to need to light the wing on fire to get me to jump out of an airplane, so for Joel to voluntarily jump out of perfectly good airplanes in order to rescue others he already has bigger cajones than I.

For those that are unfamiliar with what the PJ's do, here is an excerpt from their Wikipedia profile:

The process of becoming a "PJ" is known informally as "the Pipeline" or "Superman School."[8] Successfully completing it takes about two years of intense physical and mental effort. Of the many who begin the process, only the most determined will graduate; sometimes as few as four to six from a class of nearly 100. From start to finish the drop out rate is about 90 percent from each class.

Pararescue trainees need only attend two courses in order, the Indoctrination course and the Pararescue apprentice course. In between the two courses trainees can attend required schools in any order. Trainees may attend other branches schools such as the United States Marine Corps Combatant Diver Course for diving instruction or the Navy tactical air operations school for parachute and free fall training if other courses are full. Once a Pararescueman has completed the pipeline, they are assigned to a Rescue or Special Tactics team where they will receive informal On-the-Job training. Additionally if a pararescueman is assigned to a special tactics team they will receive additional training along with Air Force Combat Controllers in what is known as Advanced Skills Training.

A 90% dropout rate? I now feel like a loser for changing my major from athletic training to communications just two weeks into my freshman year. These are the guys that literally fall from the sky in order to save the asses of those that cannot save themselves.

Gentz's service:

After graduating from Purdue, Gentz went on to complete his training and receive an officer's commission in the U.S. Air Force. He served proudly until June 9, 2010 when he was killed in action after his helicopter was hit by multiple RPG's in Afghanistan. He was the first Para-rescue jumper to ever be killed in combat action. Before his death he is credited with saving 39 lives. Considering that it takes almost two years to complete training, that means he was on the job for about a year before his death.

Adam Reitz had the following to say about Joel:

Besides his combat career, Joel was an all around great guy.  He was a couple of years behind me, and while I wouldn't say we were close friends, we were on the ROTC drill team and football team together.  I remember him always having a smile on his face, and a great sense of humor.  I never remember him complaining about anything, and what ever he put his mind to he did with great enthusiasm.

Tributes to Gentz:

This is what had to say about Gentz after his death:

He flew eight missions a day into hostile territory in Afghanistan. He rescued men, women and children, Afghanis and Americans.

First Lt. Joel Gentz did not fight. He helped.

The Grass Lake man, a 2002 graduate of Chelsea High School, was one of four killed Wednesday in a helicopter crash during a rescue mission in Afghanistan. Gentz was 25.

The combat rescue officer once told his father there was no greater joy than saving an Afghani child and then seeing the look on the faces of the child's parents. Gentz saved a lot of children, said his father, Steve Gentz.

"Just knowing our son was doing stuff like that means a lot to us," he said Sunday.
Joel Gentz deployed to Afghanistan on April 24 with the 58th Rescue Squadron from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. On Friday, Steve and Judy Gentz watched as their son returned - to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a flag covering his remains.

This is the first Profile In Badassery I have had to write with tears in my eyes. Honestly, I struggle to find words for men like Joel Gentz. This man went out of his way to bring joy to the children in a country where, first, if you're simply born with a vagina instead of a penis you're automatically inferior, second, these children have likely seen nothing but war, and third, many grow up poorer than your average homeless person in the U.S.

The world is a better person for having known people like Joel Gentz. In the face of the debate by those in the media over "Should we be in Afghanistan or shouldn't we" we forget those that serve this country. Gentz merely went about his job of saving lives regardless of background. He didn't care if you were American, Afghani, black, white, red, purple, or whatever. He saw you as a human being, worthy of life.

I am thankful for proud Boilermakers like Joel Gentz, who is more than a badass for what he did with his short time on this earth.