Field Of Honor Ceremony For Military Killed In Last 3 Months

The Field of Honor where names of the fallen are etched at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park.

The Veterans Council of Hillsborough County holds a brief ceremony every three months to read aloud the names of the fallen and to mark their contribution and sacrifice in the fight against terrorism. To be recognized on Jan. 13, 2018, are those who were killed in October, November, and December of 2017:

  • Four personnel killed during Operation Inherent Resolve (Iraq, Syria and Yemen)
  • Four personnel killed during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan)
  • Three sailors lost in a C-2A Greyhound transport plane in the Philippine Sea
  • Four Special Forces soldiers killed in Niger
  • 74 previously unidentified remains of military members from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (military personnel formerly listed as missing-in-action now identified through advancements in mitochondrial DNA research).

The tribute also will include law enforcement officers lost in the line of duty.

The ceremony is planned Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 at 10 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins, Jr. Veterans Museum, 3602 U.S. Highway 301 N., Tampa, FL.

Plans for the public event include a banner presentation by Blue Star Mothers of Tampa Bay Inc., the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club color guard, Missing Man Formation flyover by Ye Mystic Airkrewe, Gold Star Families, patriotic music by Cody Palmer/VFW Post 8108, and a traditional rifle salute and taps by the Sgt. Walter P. Ryan Detachment 1226 Marine Corps League of Riverview.

Details are available by calling the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum at (813) 744-5502 or (813) 246-3170.

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67 Percent Question If Military Absentee Ballots Get Counted

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

In 2000, the Florida ballots of overseas service members were a key point of controversy in the Bush vs. Gore election.  Now, 16 years later, little has changed for most overseas troops, who still have to vote absentee mostly through international mail.

Florida lawmakers did create a task force this year to study developing an online voting system for military and overseas voters. But task for members aren’t expected to meet until after the 2016 November election.

However, a handful of other states are experimenting with more modern electronic ballot return.

If you’re active duty military on base, aboard ship or in a combat zone, absentee voting can be a complex process because each state has its own regulations.

So, the Department of Defense created the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to simplify access. But director Matt Boehmer said many service members remain frustrated with the process.

“One of the things that our active duty military told us was the fact that 67 percent of them weren’t confident that their ballot was counted,” Boehmer said referring to a 2014 post-election survey. “Certainly that 67 percent number gets people’s attention and it certainly got my attention.”

Courtesy: Army.mil

Courtesy: Army.mil

All states are required to provide overseas voters an electronic ballot. All 50 do so by email and online. Most offer faxed ballots and paper ballots can still be requested.

But returning a voted absentee overseas ballot is where it gets tricky. Eighteen states require ballots to be returned only through the mail. The other 32 allow some form of electronic return but it varies widely.

For instance, Florida accepts overseas ballots only by mail or fax.

“If you’re in a Forward Operation Base in the middle of the mountains in Afghanistan there’s no option to fax,” said U.S. Army veteran Diego Echeverri. “And you’re not going to have a scanner, you’re not going to have these devices.”

Echeverri served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 and is Florida director for the advocacy group, Concerned Veterans for America (CV4A).

Dan Caldwell, CV4A vice president of communications and policy, is an Iraq War veteran. He said their generation expects the ease of electronic voting.

“If troops can Skype overseas in most locations now with their family members, then they should be able to find a way to securely and secretly vote,” Caldwell said. “And I think that can work. I think we have the technology to do it. It just requires some government bureaucrats to get off their butts and actually do it.”

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

But it’s not just bureaucrats; state lawmakers decide their states’ election rules.

And it’s a balancing act between giving voters the convenience of online access versus protecting the integrity of their ballot.

“We’ve got legislators who are very interested in meeting the needs of military members,” said Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They are younger. They are used to using electronic interactions for every single thing in their life, and so, there is that push against the security.”

Four states do provide online voting to limited groups like military personnel in combat zones. Alaska is the first state to allow everyone to vote online. Yet, Underhill says the Alaska process is not all that simple.

“Not only do they cast their ballot online, they have to printout a voter identification certificate and something else and get it signed by themselves and a couple of witnesses. And then, scan that back in and send it too. And so it’s not that it’s an easy process,” Underhill said.

Looking at the bigger picture, 56 percent of active duty military, in the 2014 FVAP survey, said the process to get an absentee ballot was too complicated and confusing.

FVAP_image_montage

A Tale of Two Guide Dogs

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February.

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

This is a story of two dogs serving their country’s veterans through the Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program.

There’s the “old girl” Brittani who has eased into retirement and the youngster Zak just graduated from “boot camp” still filled with puppy exuberance.

Brittani is a Goldador, a mix of Labrador and Golden Retriever, and was the longtime companion of Michael Jernigan of St. Petersburg, a Marine wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Jernigan lost both his eyes, had his forehead crushed, his right hand, left knee and leg torn up. When he was paired with Brittani in 2007, he said the attraction was immediate.

“Brittani just came in the room and was ‘Hey – how you doing? I guess I’m here to work with you today. Let’s go. What are we doing?’” Jernigan laughed. “Brittani loves me no matter what, no matter who I am, no matter what’s wrong with me, no matter the stress I’m under. Brittani loves me and in turn I love her.”

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani at the guide dog's retirement ceremony February 2015.

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani, age 10, at the guide dog’s retirement ceremony February 2015.

They had quite a life together making a total of 66 cross-country journeys for speaking engagements and conferences as well as earning a college degree at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“College is stressful. With all those kids walking around and I can’t see and I’m trying to find my classes,” Jernigan said. “Brittani was right there with me every step of the way.”

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Brittani helped Jernigan navigate to classes as well as lessen his anxiety. But their relationship changed in February when Jernigan and others noticed his 10-year-old guide dog was losing her focus.

“Brittani has worked hard. She’s earned her retirement,” Jernigan said. “She’s still very healthy, very active at this point she’s at the point where it’s time for her to retire.”

Brittani now lives one of Jernigan’s best friends. The hardest thing, he said, was going 90 days with no contact so Brittani could bond with her new family.

“It’s all part of the cycle. Brittany is not leaving my life,” Jernigan said. “I’m still going to continue to see Brittany. She’s just not going to be living with me anymore.”

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

The two were reunited (after the required period of separation) at this week’s Southeastern Guide Dogs ceremony kicking off the MacDill Puppy Raisers group. Volunteers from the military community are helping to socialize and raise dogs for the Paws for Patriots program which gives free guide and service dogs to wounded veterans.

Jernigan is a co-founder of Paws for Patriots and now works as a donor relations manager with Southeastern Guide Dogs.

So far, Paws for Patriots has paired more than 100 guide and service dogs with wounded veterans. One of the most recent pairings: 2-year-old Zak and his wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Evin Bodle.

“I knew Zak was for me the first time I took him out and he kept up with my pace. It was amazing,” Bodle said just before their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa.

Mike_small size

Wounded Marine Michael Jernigan and Brittani during their 8 years together. Photo courtesy of Paws for Patriots, Southeaster Guide Dogs.

 

Fallen Pilot’s Portrait Finds Home In Family’s Pub

EDITORS NOTE: The Brush of Honor TV show featuring Capt. James Steel is being rebroadcast this Sunday, June 7, 2015, at 6 and 10 p.m. on INSP Network. You can find the network on your local cable company here.

Retired Major Gen. Robert Steel and his wife, Dee, with the Brush of Honor portrait of their son, Capt. James Steel.

Retired Major Gen. Robert Steel and his wife, Dee, with the Brush of Honor portrait of their son, Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

A father provides the stories and a professional artist the paint to create a portrait of Air Force Capt. James Steel, an F-16 pilot who was born in Tampa and killed in Afghanistan on April 3, 2013.

James and his twin brother Jonathan loved playing on the Bay Area beaches as their father, Major General Robert Steel, flew F-16s with the 61st Fighter Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base.

“Tampa was a very friendly part of Florida to be raising a family,” Major Gen. Steel said. Like many military families, they moved a lot in his 33-year career. And like many sons, James wanted to fly F-16s like his dad.

And father and son got a chance to fly the jets together. It was a rare moment, said Steel, when both were active flyers at the same point in time. But he has many memories of James, “They just don’t stop. It’s like a flood comes to your mind when you look at your son.”

Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Like his father and mother, James graduated from the Air Force Academy. He deployed to Korea in 2009 and then was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012,where he provided close air support for ground troops.

His parents have received many letters from those ground troops.

“That’s a very rewarding letter to get from people who felt their lives were preserved by someone and in this case our son,” Steel said.

Capt. James Steel died when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield as he was returning from a ground support mission.

Texas artist Phil Taylor in his studio working on one of the more than 180 fallen service members portraits he's created. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

Texas artist Phil Taylor in his studio working on one of the more than 180 fallen service members portraits he’s created. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

But the 29-year-old pilot lives on in a portrait by Phil Taylor through the Brush of Honor program. The newest episode of TV show Brush of Honor – features Capt. Steel as the artist visits his family and friends, paints and then presents James’ portrait.

That show premiered Thursday night (June 4, 2015) on INSP Network and is being rebroadcast Sunday night at 6 and again at 10.

Working in his Texas studio, Taylor takes about 70 hours to recreate each likeness. He said he talks to the fallen service member as he works. Taylor has completed more than 180 portraits.

Good friends of the Steel family asked permission to submit James’ name to Brush of Honor. Robert Steel said participating helped his family come to more solid terms with their loss.

The Steels show artist Phil Taylor the pub they built to honor their son, James. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steels show artist Phil Taylor the pub they built to honor their son, James. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steel family hang James' portrait in a place of honor inside the family's replicated 1890 English pub. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steel family hang James’ portrait in a place of honor inside the family’s replicated 1890 English pub. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

He did have one special request. That Taylor present James’ finished portrait at their home where Steel and his wife, Dee, had bought and installed an 1890 antique English pub in honor of James’ love of European pubs.

“It just brings back so many memories and we know that James would be in awe of a pub like that,” Steel said.

There is a special tradition that their son had mastered and the family continue at large gatherings – sabering – a Napoleonic tradition of using a saber to un-cork a champagne bottle.

“Every time we have a large family gathering,” Steel said. “One of the family members will have the opportunity to complete that sabering act and lop off the top of the bottle. It’s just another connection to our son.”

The Steel family did have one other special request for the U.S. Army, which administers Arlington National Cemetery. When James was interned there, Steel asked that his burial site be placed as close as possible to his grandparents – you see, the elder Steel’s mom and dad are also buried there.

“And sure enough they found James a location that is literally about 5 to 10 steps away,” Steel said.

Capt. James Steel in his F-16. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Capt. James Steel in his F-16. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

‘Brush of Honor’ Paints Picture of Fallen Tampa Pilot

Air Force Academy graduate Capt. James Steel was killed two years ago when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Air Force Academy graduate Capt. James Steel was killed two years ago when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

A Tampa F-16 pilot — killed in a crash April 3, 2013 while deployed in Afghanistan — is the focus of a TV series called Brush of Honor which airs tonight at 9 on the INSP Network.

The episode features Air Force Captain James Steel who was born in Tampa while his father, retired Major  Gen. Robert Steel,  flew F-16s at MacDill Air Force Base.

Brush of Honor follows professional artist Phil Taylor as he visits with Steel’s family, friends and colleagues and then paints a portrait of the 29-year old Air Force Academy graduate killed in action. The television show culminates with the special presentation of the portrait to the family.

“When the artist is able to put his heart and soul into the image with every brush,” Robert Steel said, “actually creating the essence of a person, it’s just captivating.”

Taylor has painted more than 180 portraits of America’s fallen heroes and hand-delivered them to surviving family members throughout the country. It’s his way to “honor the sacrifice of our military heroes and offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’ on behalf of a grateful nation.”

You can find the INSP Network channel on your TV by entering your zip code and television provider here.

Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

Remembering the First Fallen from All-Female Team

   1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission. Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page


1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission.
Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page

Among those who will be remembered this Memorial Day is 1st Lt. Ashley White, a member of an all-female, all-Army Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

White is buried behind her family’s church in Ohio. It’s the same church where she was baptized and where she married Capt. Jason Stumpf six months before she was killed.

The family had the option of burying Ashley at Arlington National Cemetery,

“They wanted to keep her close to home,” said best-selling author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She tells the story of Ashley and her female teammates in her new book: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

“One of the things that always stays for me is the first time I was in Ohio there was a sign in her room written on ripped up notebook paper that said in all block letters ‘YOU ARE MY MOTIVATION’,” Lemmon said. “You realize, it was not this exceptional person’s death that defined her. It was actually her life and the kind of person she was.”

White and two Army Rangers, Sgt. First Class Kris Domeij and Private First Class Christopher Horns, were killed by an improvised explosive device during a night mission in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan October 2011.

One was 29 and on his fourteenth deployment; another was just 20 serving on his first. And one was a National Guard member who answered the call to join a new, all-female, all Army special operations team. – Ashley’s War –

“This story is part of changing the way we see our heroes. And that is really what was so compelling about telling it was it was this team of women who came together and took the call to serve and will be family forever,” Lemmon said.

Ashley's_War_book_coverShe writes that the only comfort Ashley’s teammates could find in her death is that she was treated equally, the same as the two Rangers who died alongside. Just like them, a Ranger coin was placed on her casket before departing Afghanistan and her photo was placed on the wall of Ranger fallen.

“Special Operations commanders here in Tampa said these women may have well laid the foundation for ultimate integration,” Lemmon said. “They were out there every single night on these kinds of combat operations that less than 5 percent of U.S. military sees at the tip of the spear while officially women were banned from combat.”

She added that the White family considers that part of their daughter’s legacy is reminding the country of the courage and valor of this team of women who answered that call to serve.

You can read an excerpt from Ashley’s War here.

Author Lemmon also wrote the New York Times best-seller, The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana, which tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women during the Taliban years. Lemmon was in Tampa recently to speak to the Women in International Security Florida Chapter.

You can listen to the WUSF News story with Lemmon and the NPR interview from April.

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