Eric Grunke '01

Heroism on display: Alumnus named Marine Corps Aviator of the Year

April 2012 - Flying in the darkness toward Libya’s coastline on March 22, 2011, Maj. Eric Grunke ’01 raced to save a brother in arms.

On the ground below, an Air Force pilot whispered to Grunke from a hiding place near his crashed F-15.

“Tell my wife I love her.”

It was day three of Operation Odyssey Dawn, an international effort to protect the Libyan people from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, and the pilot was being pursued by several vehicles near the city of Benghazi. As the Libyan troops closed in, Grunke dropped two bombs from his Harrier, destroying their targets and causing the other pursuers to retreat.

Thanks largely to those heroic actions, Grunke recently was named Marine Corps Aviator of the Year.

“I never thought I’d be in the same category as a person like John Glenn, who was first recipient of the award,” Grunke said. “I was not alone that night. It was a team effort, everyone from my wingman who flew right next to me and looked out for surface threats to the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft pilots who flew out to pick up the pilot. I was so happy to be a part of that.”

From College to the Corps

Grunke’s connections to The College of Idaho and the military are extensive. Both of his parents and a sister are alumni of the College, while his father served in the Navy Reserve and brother served in the Marine Corps Reserve.

While the Weiser native started as a pre-med student, his thoughts soon turned to flying and he discovered the Marine Corps would guarantee him a spot in its pilot training program. So Grunke attended officer training at Quantico Marine Corps Base during his summers and went on active duty after graduating from the C of I in 2001.

Throughout his time in the Marine Corps, Grunke said his experiences at the C of I have been invaluable.

“I was part of a tight knit community at The College of Idaho, and being a pilot is like that … the sense of camaraderie is similar,” Grunke said. “The diversity, being a music minor and biology major, that broad background has been really helpful as a Marine officer.”

Protecting Libya’s People

Before participating in Operation Odyssey Dawn, Grunke’s unit had been deployed on a humanitarian aid mission to Pakistan.

“We were following along what was happening with the Arab Spring, but we weren’t sure whether we’d get involved,” he said.

The situation escalated, however, and on March 19, Grunke’s squadron was called into action, tasked with destroying tanks and other military targets that Gadhafi was using to attack his own people. 

Grunke is proud of what he and his fellow Marines accomplished during two weeks of operations in Libya. On the first night of operations, one of the major roads into Benghazi – a flashpoint for the Libyan uprising – was completely blocked off by troops loyal to Gadhafi.

“By night four after we had been pounding him, the road was open and there was civilian traffic going both ways,” Grunke said. “I witnessed a really tangible result from that mission to support the rebels. I could see the difference and I’ll always remember how important that was.”