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Air Force Capt. Derek Argel, 28, Lompoc; Killed in Plane Crash

June 12, 2005|Tonya Alanez | Times Staff Writer

Derek Argel was more at home in the water than out of it.

The native of Lompoc, Calif., competed on the city's swim team, worked as a lifeguard and was a star player on the Cabrillo High School water polo team until his graduation in 1995.

Argel continued his water polo career at the U.S. Air Force Academy, from which he graduated in 2001.

"They broke the mold when they made Derek Argel," Carolyn Gentry said of the man "who was more like a son than a nephew" and had a boyhood dream of joining the military.

Argel, a 28-year-old married father of one son, was killed May 30 in the crash of an Iraqi air force surveillance plane during a training mission northeast of Baghdad. He was among four U.S. airmen and an Iraqi pilot who died in the crash. The cause is under investigation.

Argel, assigned to the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., had been promoted to captain on the morning of his death.

Gentry remembers a boy who loved swimming, baseball and soccer, and who, along with her son, Clint Gentry Stremcha, 25, liked to romp through the woods in search of snakes and other reptiles.

"He was very adventurous and outdoorsy," Gentry said. "They loved to be out in nature and camp, and go out looking for critters and snakes."

Wendy Argel, 27, met her future husband at a bar in Destin, Fla., on St. Patrick's Day 2002.

He was a 6-foot-6 standout, she said. "He was just gorgeous," Wendy Argel said. "He was tan and tall. He was just everything I could imagine."

The couple were married Sept. 24, 2003, on Okaloosa Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Their son, Logan, is 11 months old.

Wendy Argel said her husband, who had a penchant for 1980s music and the "Rocky" movies, was happiest on the beach with his family -- fishing, surfing or tossing a ball for their two dogs, Daisy and Stuart.

Argel kept five fishing poles, two surfboards and a bodyboard in the garage and looked forward to teaching his son, whom he called "Little Buddy," how to fish.

"He was such a big guy next to our son," his wife said. "He just towered over him, but he was gentle. If he could help out [anyone] in any way, that's what made a big smile on his face ... or to catch a big fish."

Wendy Argel had a final conversation with her husband three days before his death. They spoke about their plans to take a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, in July, she said.

Argel spoke of becoming a water polo coach after the military and moving his family to an island somewhere, his wife said.

"He was just a soldier by every means of the imagination," she said. "He felt like God intended him to contribute this way. He just truly believed in it with his core, and wanted to contribute."

In addition to his wife, son and aunt, Argel is survived by his mother, Debra Bastian; and a brother, John.

A memorial service was held June 3 at Hurlburt Field, and the family held a memorial service Friday at Lompoc Evergreen Cemetery.

Argel's ashes will be spread over the Gulf Coast when fellow airmen from his squadron make one final jump in his honor, his wife said.

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