VALDOSTA, Ga. – Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, one of seven American servicemen killed Monday in the bloodiest operation yet for U.S. troops fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, was remembered Thursday as a man who devoted his life to helping others.
Cunningham, 26, of Camarillo, Calif., was a pararescueman with the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, near Valdosta, when he was killed on a mission in the frigid mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Three Rangers from Hunter Army Airfield, near Savannah, were also killed in the battle.
Cunningham's commander, Maj. Vincent Savino, said the Moody airman was hit by machine-gun fire as he treated wounded soldiers and darted out of a helicopter several times to pull others to safety.
"He spent his whole life preparing for that one moment," Savino said. "He was a great man. I know several soldiers who are alive today because of him."
As a pararescueman, Cunningham was trained as a parachutist, a diver and as a combat medic so that he could rescue and care for downed pilots or others in rugged terrain.
More than 1,000 airmen and dignitaries, including Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, gathered in a hangar beneath a huge American flag to honor Cunningham. On a table near the speaker's platform, was a large photograph of Cunningham, who was born in Carlsbad, N.M., with his karate awards, his desert-tan combat boots, a paramedic sweat shirt from the New York Fire Department and his high school athletic letter for swimming, football and track.
Air Force officials awarded him a Purple Heart for his wounds in Afghanistan and the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal for rescue work.
His wife, Theresa, attending with the couple's two daughters, Hannah, 2, and Kyla, 4, thanked the airmen and officials for their support.
"I want to say that we loved each other," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "Jason, I will always love you."
Three fellow members of the rescue squadron remembered the airman as a dedicated, capable pararescueman who inspired others.
"He was the very man you'd want with you in combat," said Staff Sgt. Craig Clark. "He was dependable. He died in the service of us all. I'm a better person because of his example and friendship."
Senior Airman Adrian Durham said Cunningham's strength inspired him to persevere during the grueling pararescue training.
"He was always willing to help others," Durham said. "When the time came, Jason threw himself forward."
The third, Tech. Sgt. Brandon Casteel, remembered Cunningham as a family man who "loved his wife and daughters."
"Jason, wherever you are, you are my friend. I love you like a brother. I wish to God you had come back," Casteel said.
Cunningham and the others were killed and eleven others wounded during intense fighting near the town of Gardez as helicopters came under attack from machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. He was on a helicopter that was attempting to rescue a Navy SEAL.
Brig. Gen. John H. Folkerts, commander of Moody's 347th Rescue Wing, which includes Cunningham's unit, said the airman's actions in Afghanistan showed that he was capable of overcoming fear.
"That is why he was on that flight," Folkerts said. "He was there to save lives. Instead, he gave his."