Robert Leonard Gabriel, 92 of Shalimar Florida, passed away on December 1, 2022 following complications from a brief illness.
Robert (Bob) was born in Ybor City in March 1930 to parents, Leonard E. Gabriel and Grace Ahrens Gabriel. He spent his early childhood in Miami and then in later years, Charleston, South Carolina where he loved dancing and going to the beach with his friends.
Bob joined the U.S. Air Force in 1949 at the age of 18, and military service became his lifelong passion. Beginning in 1965, Bob flew combat missions with the 311th Air Commando Squadron at Danang Air Base, Vietnam. In 1967, he was assigned to the 4410 CCTW at Hurlburt Field as the NCOIC Base Flight. He was reassigned in 1968 to the Combat Control Team to train controllers and TDY personnel in scuba and military freefall courses.
In his last active duty assignment, 1976-1979, he became the first Senior Enlisted Advisor/AF SOC Command Chief (Air Force Special Operations Command) at his beloved Hurlburt Field.
He served one tour of duty in the Korean War and multiple tours of duty in Vietnam from 1964 to 1967. Chief Gabriel earned three Air Medals for meritorious service, and the Airman’s Medal and Bronze Star for his heroic actions at Danang and Bien Hoa airbases. Because of his exemplary service in Vietnam and his dedication to Air Force Combat Control Teams, Chief Gabriel was inducted into the Air Commando Association Hall of Fame in 1996.
After retiring in 1979 he went on to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg North Carolina to become a civilian Military Freefall Instructor with the Military Freefall Committee (HALO Committee). He is primarily responsible for the many combat parachute tactics used in both the Army and the Air Force. Bob loved skydiving and made his last jump on October 13, 2003 with his son, Mark and daughter-in-law, Donna. It was jump number 10099 and with that final jump he had an accumulated total freefall time of 150 hours, 32 minutes, and 07 seconds.
In March 1993, he retired again, completing 45 years of military and civilian service, and went on to pursue his bucket list. In 1999, he traveled to Europe, retracing his father’s footsteps during WWI. Then, in 2000, at the age of seventy, Bob began his trek of the 2000 mile long Appalachian Trail. He walked halfway before falling and breaking his hip. He returned home, rehabilitated, and went back to finish the entire trail. Bob also taught concealed weapons classes for hundreds of people if the Fort Walton Beach area.
He was an animal lover and supported the ASPCA, along with numerous animal shelters in the Fort Walton Beach area. His generosity also extended to St. Jude’s Hospital for children and Operation Smile, an organization that provides cleft surgeries for disadvantaged children worldwide. Bob was larger than life, with a generous spirit and a magnetic personality. He was loved by all who knew him, and he will be sorely missed.
Bob is survived by his son, Mark K. Gabriel, Sr., and daughter-in-law Donna of Winter Haven, Florida, grandson Mark K. Gabriel, Jr. and wife Amanda, and great-grandson Benjamin Cooper Gabriel of Port St. Lucie, Florida. Bob is preceded in death by his loving wife of more than fifty years, Marie (Susie) Phillips Gabriel and his son Kurt Gabriel.
Funeral services will be held on December 6, 2022, at Emerald Coast Funeral Home. Visitation will begin at 10:00 a.m., with service at 11:00 a.m. Burial immediately following at Beal Memorial Cemetery.
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