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Published: Friday, 6/11/2010

Jackson, Michigan area airman killed when Taliban hit helicopter


GRASS LAKE, Mich. — A 25-year-old Air Force officer from Michigan who was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan is being remembered as a standout athlete in high school and a leader in college.

The U.S. military is investigating the crash in which four airmen died Wednesday. Two Taliban rockets struck the aircraft.

Those who died included 1st Lt. Joel C. Gentz of Grass Lake, east of Jackson. He ran cross country at Chelsea High School, where he graduated in 2002, the Jackson Citizen Patriot said.

"He was the best of the best," school Principal Julie Deppner told the Detroit Free Press. She was assistant principal when Gentz attended the school.

"He was an athlete. He was outstanding academically. But, above all, he was a school leader and role model for our student body," Deppner said.

Gentz received a bachelor's degree from Purdue University in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, said school spokeswoman Jeanne Norberg. There, he was a member of Iron Key, a senior honorary leadership group.

Gentz was part of the 58th Rescue Squadron from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

The other airmen killed were 31-year-old Staff Sgt. Michael P. Flores of San Antonio; 26-year-old Staff Sgt. David C. Smith of Eight Mile, Ala.; and 24-year-old Senior Airman Benjamin D. White, 24, of Erwin, Tenn., the Pentagon said. Three other airmen were wounded.

The crash happened near Forward Operating Base Jackson in southern Helmand province's Sangin district. It's one of the most volatile areas in Afghanistan.

"Our hearts go out to the families of these brave Americans, and we express our deepest condolences to them," Col. Gary Henderson said in a statement. "All seven airmen involved in this incident embody the rescue motto 'These things we do, that others may live,' and were on a lifesaving mission."

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