Looking For Future Air Force Leaders In Technology

Middleton High School JROTC cadet Lt. Col. Carlos Martinez and Coast Guard pilot Justin Neal during STEM Day at MacDill AFB.

Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base put on an impressive show of skill and threw in a bit of fun for some 1200 school students who visited the base this month to check out military careers linked to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Never before in our nation’s history have we depended more on technology and the application of technology to win – not only in the air – but in space and in cyber space,” said MacDill Commander Col. April Vogel. “You know our mission is to fly, fight and win. So, we need to create people who can do that. And there are some amazing young minds here today which is why this is so special.” Continue reading

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National Air Guardsman Tapped To Lead MacDill AFB

vogel_cox_command_change_macdill_cropped

Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox, commander of the 18th Air Force, passes the 6th Air Mobility Wing guidon to the incoming commander, Col. April Vogel, during the wing change of command ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., July 8, 2016.
Tech. Sgt. Krystie Martinez / U.S. Air Force

Commanding an Air Force Wing – like the 6th Air Mobility Wing in Tampa – is challenging enough.  Add to that being accountable for the security and daily operations of a high profile military base that is headquarters for U.S. Central Command, and those responsibilities grow “huge.”

That’s why the Air Force selected Col. April Vogel to take command at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa. Continue reading

WWII Women Pilots Can Now Rest In Peace At Arlington

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret "Peg" Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, "Pistol Packin' Mama," during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret “Peg” Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Congress finally passed a measure that President Barack Obama signed on Friday allowing Women Airforce Service Pilots the honor of having their ashes buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The law overturns an Army decision that exclude the female pilots. According to the Military Times nearly 1,100 women served from 1942 to 1944, ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets. Thirty-eight died during training and support missions.

Their recognition and cause became one of the few bipartisan congressional efforts so far this year. You can read the full article here.

Florida Veterans Courts Grow Despite Little State Funding

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

It was only a few years ago that the Florida legislature gave counties permission to create Veterans Treatment Courts as an alternative to criminal prosecution of former military members charged with misdemeanors and third degree felonies.

And in that time 23 courts have been created, but only nine including Pinellas and Pasco counties are funded by lawmakers.

Others like the Veterans Treatment Court in Hillsborough County get no state money.

“We did this within the resources of our offices. Our bosses committed the resources for this court to work,” said Marie Marino with the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office who represents many of the veterans.

In addition to carrying a full felony docket, Hillsborough Circuit Jude Greg Holder hears all the cases that come before the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).

“In defense of the legislature though, until we expanded, perhaps it was thought that we didn’t have the need,” Holder said. “Now that it’s expanded, we have over 50 veterans. That need exists and we can use that money and use it wisely.”

Holder took over the veterans’ court in February from Judge Richard Weis when third degree felony cases were added.

Retired Army Col. D.J. Reyes was the first to volunteer as a mentor for the Hillsborough VTC. He now coordinates 33 other mentors – some retired, some still active-duty – along with handling his own caseload.

“It’s been grass roots campaigning on my part because I have no money, I have no funding, I have nothing except me, my time and my energy,” Reyes said.

The mentors are key to the success of the specialty court. All volunteer, they are considered a veteran’s “battle buddy” someone who provides help and accountability. The veterans must check with their mentor at minimum once a week – more often if needed.

Veterans also are assessed by the VA for service related physical and psychological problems. Many need treatment for things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. The VTC gets them enrolled in programs some at the VA others through public, non-profit or even private providers.

Choosing to go through the Veterans Treatment Court is not the easier route. Veterans will spend anywhere from six to 18 months under its supervision. And just like in regular criminal court, the veterans still have to do community service hours and report to the Department of Corrections if on probation.

“The difference in veterans court is the defendants are here voluntarily,” said Hillsborough assistant state attorney Stephanie Ferlita. “They want to seek treatment. They realize they do have a problem. Most of them are embarrassed to have come in contact with the criminal justice system and we are providing them a way to hopefully have a onetime contact with the justice system.”

Another difference in the veterans court – the judge, prosecution, defense, mentors and caseworkers act as a team.

“Even the defense attorney is the first to say, ‘You’ve got to clean up’ or ‘that’s a violation.’ Where in a traditional courtroom, it’s all about defense and mitigation,” Marino said.

The number of veterans seeking admittance into the VTC is growing. And despite having no direct state funding, the court continues to accept qualified veterans.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley from St. Petersburg recently represented one of the veterans in Hillsborough’s VTC. He believes veterans courts should be funded throughout the state.

“If people say they’re patriots and they believe in the value of the service of veterans, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is and fund the courts the way they need to be funded,” Dudley said.

But the earliest Hillsborough could see any funding would be after January when the legislature meets.

The Veterans Treatment Courts receiving state money this fiscal year:

·         Okaloosa ($150,000)

·         Clay ($150,000)

·         Pasco ($150,000)

·         Pinellas ($150,000)

·         Alachua ($150,000)

·         Duval ($200,000)

·         Orange ($200,000)

·         Escambia ($150,000)

·         Leon ($125,000)

According to the senate president’s office, at this time, there is no specific criteria that determine how and which veterans’ courts get state money.

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.

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