Col. Lunardi remembered during ‘Celebration of Life’

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

Col. Tara Lunardi was honored during a ‘Celebration of Life’ event May 1, attended in person and livestreamed globally, to honor her nearly three decades of service with the Office of Special Investigations.

Lunardi died Feb. 7 after a valiant battle with cancer. According to speakers at the event, her leadership style and pioneering advocacy for gender diversity has left a lasting impact on OSI, and continues to inspire colleagues, friends, and the broader military community.

“Tara knew the table of success was large, and there was room for all of us,” said Brig. Gen. Amy Bumgarner, OSI’s commander, during the event. “And she spent her time encouraging us to find our own chair to pull up a spot at the table that worked best for us.”

Midwestern roots

Born in 1975 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lunardi's early years laid the groundwork for her OSI career, colleagues said. 

At the event, David Dew, Lunardi’s eighth-grade teacher and track coach, spoke warmly about the colonel, highlighting her journey from student to military leader. Looking back on her early signs of leadership, "She was an outstanding student; no one worked harder or was better prepared,” Dew said. 

Dew shared a moment when Lunardi's determination to stand out became clear: “I remember she said, 'I got up one day, looked in the mirror, and decided I'm going to dress up today’ and she did,” he said. This defining moment, to him, marked her commitment to carving her own path.

This act of defiance was also particularly significant in her social circle, where dressing up was not the norm, Dew said, making it a moment of personal bravery that stuck with him over the years. 

Dew's mentorship went beyond the classroom, he said, extending into personal support at family gatherings and sporting events, fostering a bond that continued for decades. In fact, decades later, he visited the White House all thanks to his former student. 

"I was invited to family get-togethers, basketball games and banquets,” he told the audience, adding that Lunardi’s achievements and personality reinforced the value of his teaching career: "She validated my life as a teacher,” he said. 

During the event, loved ones shared anecdotes of the colonel’s adolescence and college days at Indiana University, where the Hoosier student joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps during her sophomore year after seeing cadets doing physical training around the Bloomington campus. Not only that, but ROTC paid for her college. 

According to her mother, Lunardi embraced the challenges cadet life presented. In fact, despite joining a year later, she went on to be the ROTC detachment’s cadet commander and distinguished graduate. 

In addition, the future OSI Special Agent graduated with honors; double majoring in psychology and criminal justice. Although she made great grades, “it didn’t come easy,” her mom said. “She had to work harder than most.”

In a video tribute, her mother also shared lesser-known facets of Lunardi’s early years to illustrate her life, especially outside of OSI, like how she was published in Teen Magazine in June 1992 after competing for Miss Teen Indiana. 

Early career

Those early accomplishments laid the groundwork for Lunardi’s career within OSI, which began as a distinguished graduate from the Special Investigations Academy. Her first assignment was at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in June 1997, where she quickly proved her mettle. 

“She was going to show everybody that she could do it—then she did,” Her husband, Mark said. “She just absolutely crushed it. Every single assignment she had; every job she ever did.”

After her role as an executive officer and chief of counterintelligence at the 62nd Field Investigations Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Lunardi brought her linguistic skills to her first command role at OSI Det. 531 at Aviano Air Base, Italy, which not only facilitated crucial operations, but also set the stage for her first deployment.  

In 2007, with a decade of OSI experience, Lunardi volunteered for a deployment to Erbil, Iraq. As the commander of a Strategic Counterintelligence Directorate unit there, she managed complex intelligence operations while navigating the challenges of a hostile environment.

Following her return to the United States, Lunardi took command of OSI Det. 802 at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, from 2006 to 2008. These roles got the attention of senior leaders, including retired Special Agent William Davidson, who she first met during her time in Italy.

Impressed by Lunardi's professionalism during their initial European encounter, Davidson, who was then the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force, selected Lunardi in 2008 to be his senior executive officer at the Pentagon without considering other candidates. 

Her job was particularly challenging, Davidson told the audience, besides her duties as his senior executive officer and being the first point of contact for visitors, she also managed multiple programs and supervised various groups. 

The role also involved travel—but what truly stood out, Davidson said, was Lunardi’s personality and humanity. Her enthusiasm for discovering the best local dining spots became a staple of those work trips. 

“Often when we were traveling with the senior leadership teams, Tara was always the one to volunteer to make dining arrangements for everyone,” Davidson said. “The good thing about doing this is you got the best food you could ever find anywhere.”

According to Davidson, their connection didn't end with his retirement; instead, it grew stronger. They remained in close, sharing stories and creating memories in the years that followed. 

From the summers of 2014 until 2016, Lunardi served as the Deputy Director of Security and Intelligence at the White House Military Office in Washington D.C., where she was the senior military advisor for security matters to ensure peacetime and emergency military coordination and oversight of all DoD resources supporting the President, Vice President and senior staff worldwide.

During her interview for the position, Davidson said he believes she was selected because they quickly learned, “There would never be a dull day in the office with her there,” he said. 

“In each of these key billets, she represented the Air Force and OSI in the best possible way,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Davis, Department of the Air Force Inspector General. 

Questioning the status-quo

Throughout her career, Lunardi's work ethic, from a Midwestern upbringing to the global operations of OSI, cemented her reputation as a focused, hardworking leader. 

But she was known not only for her leadership skills, but also for her compassion and caring personality, speakers said. These influences met during her year at the U.S. Air Force War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in 2016.

As a student, Lunardi had the opportunity to reflect deeply on her experience in the military and the direction it was going. In many ways, it laid the groundwork for the later part of her OSI career. 

This led to her thesis, "General Officer Gender Diversity: How to Get from Here to There," which challenged the military establishment by addressing issues of gender diversity within its ranks. 

As OSI’s deputy commander, she would be a chairwoman for the agency’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

Lunardi's thesis questioned the scarcity of women in higher ranks and the scrutiny those at the top often faced, topics she knew might unsettle some of her colleagues, but could also advocate change.  

“Tara is a champion for all of us—but especially the underdogs,” Bumgarner said. “The ones who are a little different than the ones who come before. She poured her heart and soul into everything she did—and everything she loved.” 

According to her husband, Lunardi was aware of the discomfort her thesis might cause but remained committed to initiating necessary conversations about diversity in the military.

“When Tara found her voice, she would speak up and say what everyone else was thinking,” Bumgarner said. “She was comfortable with being uncomfortable, leaning in and being vulnerable.”

This forward-thinking approach came to define much of her later career, as demonstrated in her progression within OSI. Lunardi served first as a vice commander and then as commander, initially at the 7th Field Investigations Region and subsequently at the 2nd Field Investigations Region. 

Between these command roles, Lunardi shifted her focus to education, not as a student but as an instructor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy from July 2018 until July 2020.

These experiences paved the way for her appointment in 2023 as OSI's deputy commander, a position she held alongside the current commander, Bumgarner, whom she had first officially met ten years earlier at an OSI holiday party.

For Bumgarner, she knew Lunardi was the OSI Special Agent who served in Iraq, the White House and other esteemed positions. “She definitely had name recognition,” Bumgarner said. 

During the interaction, Bumgarner remembered how Lunardi was immediately in her corner. She congratulated Bumgarner on her own accomplishments and how Lunardi encouraged her to, “keep blazing a trail all the way up to being the first female commander of OSI.” 

Ten years later, Bumgarner did just that. 

Enduring legacy

As the event neared its conclusion, the Legion of Merit with an Oak Leaf Cluster was presented to her husband by Bumgarner. The medal recognized Lunardi’s significant contributions to OSI as deputy commander, highlighting how Lunardi's time as an OSI senior leader was pivotal in addressing complex challenges across all levels of the military.

Following the medal presentation, a flag-folding ceremony was conducted, featuring Airmen from each rank Lunardi attained during her military service, from second lieutenant through colonel. 

In the end, Lunardi's legacy was not defined by her list of professional accomplishments, assignment, military decorations, or even her professional reputation. According to the speakers at the ceremony, it was her humanity that was most remembered.

“She knew relationships moved at the speed of vulnerability, and she was happy to speed down that highway,” Bumgarner said. “She was so happy for me—for us, for OSI, and the Air Force. She deeply wanted to be part of this journey, and I’m here to say she was—and she still is.”

This sentiment seemed to encapsulate the celebration of her life.

“Our real legacy is not our work,” Davis said. “But rather the great work of the individuals we have helped to mentor and develop. By that measure, Tara's legacy will be remarkable. Tara lived her life to the fullest and she made our lives fuller in the process.”

Related links

In memoriam: Col. Tara Lunardi, OSI's deputy commander