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.

The Story of the All Female Unit That Served with SOF

Ashley's_War_book_coverGayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of Ashley’s War, a book on the women who served with Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, is speaking Monday, May 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm at the Port Tampa Library,  4902 West Commerce Street, Tampa, FL

Good Reads calls Ashley’s War “a gripping story of a groundbreaking team of female American warriors who served alongside Special Operations soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan—including Ashley White, a beloved soldier who died serving her country’s cause.”

Lemmon’s discussion is sponsored by the Women In International Security Florida WIIS. It will be followed by a book signing.

In Ashley’s War, Lemmon uses on-the ground reporting and a finely tuned understanding of the complexities of war to tell the story of CST-2, a unit of women hand-picked from the Army, and the remarkable hero at its heart: 1st Lt. Ashley White, who would become the first Cultural Support Team member killed in action and honored on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor alongside the men of Ranger Regiment with whom she died on mission.

Lemmon also shared details about the book during an interview with National Public Radio in April. You can listen to that interview here. She also authored the New York Times bestseller, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

The author is also scheduled to appear a the US Special Operations Command celebration of the Global SOF (Special Operations Forces) Foundation One Year Anniversary Celebration at the Tampa History Center at 7 pm on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Afghanistan Combat Veteran Commemorates Patriot Plaza

wes_moore_croppedSaturday in Sarasota they’re holding the national commemoration of Patriot Plaza. It’s the 2800 seat amphitheater and art installation built to honor veterans and their families at Sarasota National Cemetery.

The keynote speaker for the capstone event is best-selling author Wes Moore – a former paratrooper and veteran of the Afghanistan War.

His book is titled “The Other Wes Moore.” He wrote it after discovering another young man by the same name, from the same city, with a similar background and about the same age. But instead of receiving a Rhodes Scholarship like he did, the other Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

He wanted to know why their similar lives were so divergent.

“The military for me was a remarkable experience. I grew in the military. It helped to change me, shape me and help me immeasurably,” Moore said. “Some of my fondest memories in my life thus far happened not when I was in a suit, or wearing jeans, but when I was wearing the uniform of the United States of America.”

Curiosity led the decorated combat veteran and White House Fellow to reach out to his Doppelganger. Their correspondence became the backbone for his book. And he said the best way to honor veterans is to do the same thing, reach out and ask about their individual stories.

One of the dozens of photographs depicting U.S. troops on the battlefront and the home front at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

“Often times what ends up happening in the fear of saying something incorrect, you end up saying nothing. No conversation takes place but the interpretation in the veterans’ community is that you don’t care,” Moore said.

That’s why he became executive producer of the PBS series “Coming Back with Wes Moore” – to tell some of the stories of struggle and success as wounded veterans work to find a new mission in civilian life.

The three part series, currently being broadcast on WUSF-TV, Channel 16, at 10 p.m. Sundays, shows how some veterans fight through physical pain and emotional setbacks.

“That’s what warriors do,” Moore said in the series. “It is what makes us different.”

And he told WUSF that veterans want to make a difference.

Part of the photographic art installations at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

Part of the photographic art installations at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery.

“We believe we have a lot to contribute. We believe that often times people look at the veteran community as if we’re challenges or as if we’re things that have to be solved,” Moore said. “We view ourselves very differently. We really do look at ourselves as assets that need to be leveraged.”

That’s the message that Moore will deliver Saturday at Patriot Plaza. He’s excited about revisiting the artwork there because it triggers an emotional response – that’s different for every individual.

The Patriot Plaza Celebrate Service & Sacrifice ceremony is scheduled at 2 p.m. and includes a speech by Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the West Point Band and Moore. It’s free and open to the public, however, registration is required.

The WUSF Veterans Coming Home project also will be there as part of the Veterans Legacy Summit “Legacy Zone” at Patriot Plaza from 12:30-4:30 p.m. No registration is required. Stop by and see us.

WUSF Veterans Coming Home is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

 

Medal of Honor Recipient Leroy Petry Is on A New Mission

MSgt. Leroy Petry (right) took time to greet everyone who stood in line to meet him and take a photograph.

MSgt. Leroy Petry (right) took time to greet everyone who stood in line to meet him and take a photograph.

Living Medal of Honor recipients are somewhat rare. There are only 79 living out of nearly 3,500 recipients since the highest military honor was created during the Civil War.

So, it was no surprise that 200 students, veterans and members of the public came out to hear Medal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant (Ret.) Leroy Petry deliver the keynote address at the University of South Florida Veterans Day Ceremony in Tampa.

An estimated crowd of 200 helped celebrate Veterans Day on Tuesday at the University of South Florida.

An estimated crowd of 200 helped celebrate Veterans Day on Tuesday at the University of South Florida.

After his 20 minute speech, numerous veterans stood in line waiting patiently to greet the Army Ranger personally, shake his hand and take a photo with him. Later the Medal of Honor recipient visited with members of the USF football team to talk about resiliency.

Resiliency is something Petry knows about.

On May 26, 2008 as a weapons squad leader in Afghanistan, Petry was shot in both legs as his unit was clearing a courtyard. Two Rangers, wounded by a grenade, were next to him.

Petry saw a second grenade near his men. He picked it up to throw it clear and the grenade exploded severing his right hand. Petry’s training kicked in. He applied his own tourniquet and then got on the radio to call for support. Later, he refused medical care until medics cared for the other wounded first.

Petry retired just a few months ago. And like many of the student veterans in the audience, he is taking on a new mission college and spending more time with family.

Army Ranger MSgt. Leroy Petry.

Army Ranger MSgt. Leroy Petry.

“I have served eight tours and I know that sounds like a lot, but I’d love to be nowhere else but with my guys right now who just returned from trip number 17 overseas,” Petry told the crowd. “They want and are still making a difference.”

He said in an interview afterward that the toughest part of transitioning into civilian life is balancing his drive to be with his battle buddies versus spending time with his family.

“I had an opportunity to go overseas with some guys and it was over Halloween and this might be my son’s last year trick-or-treating,” Petry said. “I had to choose one or the other.”

He chose to spend Halloween with his youngest son.

The hardest part of his retirement as a Medal of Honor recipient has been managing his time. He has to balance requests for appearances with time for his family and education.

The Color Guard opened the Veterans Day Ceremony at USF sponsored by the Student Veterans Association and Office of Veterans Services.

The Color Guard opened the Veterans Day Ceremony at USF sponsored by the Student Veterans Association and Office of Veterans Services.

“I know this award has kind of put me in a different spot where that will come first. But I don’t want to be known only as ‘Leroy Petry Medal of Honor recipient,” Petry said. “I want to be known as ‘Hey! That’s a good guy over there just helping me out,’”

Petry starts a new chapter this January when he heads back to college to study economics.  He will still do public appearances. And he’ll shake hands – with his prosthetics hand – and take photos with all who ask – just like he did with countless veterans and students at USF.

You can listen to MSgt. Leroy Petry’s full speech here.

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