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Community grieves special tactics airman

Mar. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Master Sgt. Josh Gavulic, a special tactics airman, far left, stands with members of the 17th Special Tactics Squadron at Fort Benning, Ga. Gavulic died in a parachuting accident on Feb. 21.
Master Sgt. Josh Gavulic, a special tactics airman, far left, stands with members of the 17th Special Tactics Squadron at Fort Benning, Ga. Gavulic died in a parachuting accident on Feb. 21. (Tactical Air Control Party Association)
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Master Sgt. Josh Gavulic leaves behind his wife, Alyssa, and six children. (Courtesy of Gavulic family)

There is never enough time.

That is what Master Sgt. Josh Gavulic told his wife, Alyssa, each time he left for war. As a special tactics airman, his work was particularly perilous, on the ground and close to the enemy.

He survived 10 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. On Feb. 21, Gavulic, a 34-year-old father of six, died in a parachute training accident in Eloy, Ariz.

He leaves behind a community of stunned and grieving special operators and friends he’d made — and kept — since he was a wild teen-ager with long hair and bell-bottom pants in Derby, Kan.

Gavulic was a tactical air control party member with the 17th Special Tactics Squadron at Fort Benning, Ga., where memorial services were scheduled for Feb. 28.

The accident, which is under investigation, occurred during free fall proficiency training, a type of parachuting that requires the user to pull his or her own parachute — an important skill when trying to infiltrate an area undetected, said Maj. Craig Savage, an Air Force Special Tactics spokesman.

Authorities have said Gavulic, a Ranger and qualified jumpmaster, struck the door while exiting the jump aircraft at about 10,000 feet, the Associated Press reported.

Gavulic was a sharp, regimented warrior with the decorations to prove it, say those who knew him. As a supervisor, he would sit you down and make you think about what you really wanted in life. As an airman, he would call you out no matter your rank or position if he thought you needed it. On the joint base at Benning, he interacted just as easily with soldiers as his own, no easy feat for anybody. With Gavulic, it just seemed natural.

As a TACP, Gavulic planned and controlled air combat resources for joint operations. He also operated and supervised communications networks to support ground maneuver elements.

During his 16 years in the Air Force, he earned three Bronze Star medals, two Joint Service Commendation Medals with Valor, two Air Force Commendation Medals and an Army Commendation Medal.

There were other layers, soft and silly and endlessly sarcastic.

“He really liked to kind of take shots at the [squadron] commander and I to make sure we were listening,” said 17th Special Tactics Squadron superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Troy Lundquist.

Gavulic would walk away leaving Lundquist and Lt. Col. John Traxler wondering if they’d heard him right.

When Gavulic was not with his family, he was talking about them — Alyssa and the children, three girls and three boys ages 15 months to 15 years.

“That’s was who he wanted to be successful for. Not for himself, but for his family,” Lundquist said.

That selflessness extended to the squadron, Lundquist said.

“He honestly made everybody better — his family or the folks he worked with or even our Ranger partners. I honestly think after you were done dealing with Master Sgt. Josh Gavulic, you were better in some form or fashion.”

Once 'a hippie'

Jenny Ammerman met Gavulic at Derby High School when they were 16.

Gavulic’s father, who was in the Air Force, moved to Kansas from California in the mid-1990s, she said. Gavulic was in the high school marching band with two of her classmates: Ammerman’s future husband, Brett, and his best friend, Colin Miller.

“We were all kind of part of this outcast group. Josh was a drummer. He was different. He dressed different. We called him a hippie. He had his own sense of style — bell bottoms and baggy jeans. He definitely led the way in the style department,” said Ammerman, who still lives in Kansas. “When people would tease him, he never let it get to him. He found the friends that were loyal to him, and he was loyal back.”

Gavulic was funny, she said. “You never knew what he was going to do next or say next.”

Once, strapped for money and in need of gas, he took a can from classroom to classroom asking for donations.

“He managed to get enough money for gas,” she said. “He could approach strangers and start conversations without missing a beat. His mind was so quick. It was hard to keep up with him sometimes. He was always wanting to try something new, meet new people, figure everybody out.”

His close group of friends never imagined Gavulic would join the Air Force after high school in 1998. He always seemed so busy living in the moment to give much thought to the future.

“He came to a crossroads,” Ammerman said. “He said, ‘I have to focus my energy somewhere or I don’t know where I’m going to end up.’ At that point and time, he didn’t know what else to do. He settled into [the Air Force] really fast and it took off. It became the best decision he ever made. He loved it.”

The military took Gavulic across the country and around the world. But he never let too much time pass without a visit or a phone call to his high school friends, Ammerman said. “I don’t know what would have happened [to our friendships] if not for the effort he put in.”

During a visit over a long weekend, Gavulic tore up the impractical carpet in the Ammermans’ kitchen and replaced it with tile.

“He taught himself how to do home repairs, so he wanted to come do home repairs at my house. He wanted to help everybody have a better life,” she said.

When Gavulic married Alyssa in 2000, Gavulic called on his old friends Miller and Brett Ammerman to serve as groomsmen.

Like the military, Alyssa helped to ground him, Ammerman said. “When he met his wife, family became everything to him.”

A role model

Tech. Sgt. Justin Foles heard about Gavulic before he met him.

Gavulic had gone through elite Ranger training in 2009. When Foles went later on, Gavulic’s name kept coming up.

“They just kept telling me, ‘You’ll never be better than Gav. You’ll never be better than Gav,’” Foles said.

They ended up in the same flight at Benning a few years later, Gavulic as flight chief.

“He sat me down and had me write out my goals — not just in the military but life goals, getting your bachelor’s degree, your master’s degree, getting your kids involved in community programs,” Foles said. “He felt a good military man was a good, well-rounded man. Josh makes you take a step back. How are you going to live your life?”

That was not uncommon for Gavulic, said Lundquist, his chief.

“One of the things Josh wasn’t afraid to do was mentor in every direction. If I was messing up or the commander was messing up, he’d start it out, ‘With all due respect sir, or chief, but you’re doing it the wrong way.’ That’s the PG version. He knew what wrong was and he knew what right was. It didn’t matter if you were an O-5 or an E-3. That’s a value. Some people only mentor in a downward position. Josh wasn’t going to go away if something was wrong. He’d stay and put his 2 cents in,” Lundquist said.

“Without question, he’s a linchpin of this squadron. There is not anything operationally that goes on in here that he’s not aware of,” the chief said. “He was definitely one of the two or three guys we’d go to when we had questions about operations.”

When Gavulic recently stepped into the position of operations superintendent, he knew he had a big job to fill, Lundquist said. “The guy who left was a rock star. Josh comes in and worries about maintaining that. He sought out feedback. If he didn’t think he was getting enough guidance or moving in the right direction, he’d talk it out.”

When Gavulic learned he’d be testing for senior master sergeant, he asked his chief what he needed to do to increase his chances of making it.

“He knew ultimately that was going to benefit his family. He had an insatiable desire to lead and he was good at it, but he knew it was also a benefit for his family,” Lundquist said.

In family snapshots, Foles said, Gavulic is either holding or carrying on his shoulders one of his children.

“Family was first. Military was second,” he said.

On what would be one of his last days at home, Gavulic took his eldest son, 12-year-old Tristan, on a 12-mile ruck march. It was a grueling three hours. Afterward, Alyssa sent a text to her husband, Foles said.

“I heard Tristan slowed you down,” she wrote.

“He did slow me down,” Gavulic typed back. “But I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”

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