Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Remember Our Heroes

Airman 1st Class Lauren Marie Lagudi made everyone around her feel special. She always had a smile and her laugh was infectious. Her charisma made her a natural on camera, launching her into the broadcasting career she had aspired to since her teens. Last November (2008), she survived a 17-day coma caused by toxic shock syndrome and battled her way back to health and her first duty station at Aviano Air Base, Italy. “Even at the young age of 20 she fulfilled her dreams,” said Donna Turner, a longtime family friend.

Lagudi was found dead Oct. 20, 2009 near a platform at the train station in Pordenone Italy, 10 miles from Aviano Air Base.

At 16, Lauren Lagudi was already contemplating the joy of life as she wrote in her journal. “The present is a gift to be thankful for,” Susan Lagudi said Friday, quoting an excerpt from an entry her daughter made in 2005.

It was one of many perspectives of youthful innocence, energy and gusto that friends, family members and fellow airmen shared at the funeral of Airman 1st Class Lauren Marie Lagudi, whose body was found Oct. 20 near a train station in Pordenone, Italy.

Some 300 people filled the pews of Chapel One at Randolph AFB to mourn the popular radio and television broadcaster. She had adopted a motto of “live, love, laugh,” before she mysteriously died at age 20.

An eight-minute video included snippets of her TV reports at Aviano Air Base in Italy, interspersed with family photos dating to her childhood. Mourners saw a still photo of her in the sound studio at Aviano as they heard her dedicate a song to her father, retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Sal Lagudi. “I love you, Daddy. Happy birthday,” she said. Mourners gasped at seeing her do a video sound bite wishing everyone back home in San Antonio a Merry Christmas. “And I hope to see you soon,” she said.

While struggling to cope with the death of the perky military journalist, who last year was named the Air Force's outstanding news broadcaster of the year, friends and family also celebrated her warmth and sincerity.

Lagudi, a broadcaster with the American Forces Network, would often declare that “AFN rocks,” and was loved by airmen across the globe, said Sr. Master Sgt. Robert Valenca, who worked with her at Aviano. “There are hearts breaking around the world right now because of this one airman,” he said.

Lagudi had lived in San Antonio — “S.A. Town,” she'd call it — since 2001. She followed the San Antonio Spurs, but had a football loyalty to the Miami Dolphins that generated ribbing from her friends.

Born in Niagra, N.Y., she toyed with the idea of being a singer or gymnast before discovering in fifth grade that her real forte was acting — a talent she later adapted to broadcasting while attending Clemens High School. Her friends from the Schertz-Cibolo area spoke of her contagious laugh, pool parties, school dances and videos she'd shot on campus, often set to the music she chose.

But Valenca's comments underscored the high-energy professionalism she had developed as a young woman, whether producing a video on fitness or auto maintenance, or hosting her drive-time radio show, “Your Morning Fix.”

She favored material that had broad appeal to lower-ranking airmen and families, and would light up when speaking of San Antonio or her two younger brothers, Valenca said. “I've never seen an airman that had the passion that she did,” he said.

Mourners later gathered at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Like scores of young troops whose lives have been cut short by wars overseas since 2001, Airman Lagudi was memorialized with rifle volleys and the sounding of “Taps” at Shelter No. 4.

Her father, in his Air Force dress uniform, invited mourners to come close to his daughter one last time before they left the grounds. Many of them lay their hands lovingly on her silver casket before greeting her family with a handshake or a hug.

Italian investigators have concluded that she died after jumping from a train that was leaving the Pordenone station, two Italian newspapers reported. Airman 1st Class Lauren Lagudi, 20, had returned from Rome on a late-night train Oct. 19. She was reported missing when she didn’t show up for work as a broadcaster for American Forces Network radio at Aviano Air Base. Her body was discovered by Italian authorities near the station. Investigators believe Lagudi realized she had missed her stop and opened a door as the train was pulling away. She threw out her luggage and then jumped off. She apparently hit her head in the process, suffering fatal injuries.

Investigators surmised that Lagudi might have fallen asleep on the train and awakened to realize that she was missing her stop, the newspapers reported. The train wouldn’t stop again until it reached Udine — about an hour away — and Lagudi’s car was at the Pordenone station.

Lauren was the beloved daughter of CMSgt. (Ret.) Sal and Susan Lagudi of Cibolo, Texas. Lauren is also survived by brothers, Sal and Robert; grandparents, James and Barbara Lagudi, Shirley Todd and a host of family and friends.

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