The Gamblers returned home from Afghanistan last week minus one of their own. On Tuesday, members of the squadron and family of the fallen pilot held a memorial service at Shaw Air Force Base in honor of Capt. James Steel.
Steel, known to his fellow F-16 pilots by the call sign “Mano,” was killed when his plane crashed during a descent into Bagram Air Base near Kabul on April 3. The rest of the 77th Fighter Squadron came back to Shaw just three weeks later after a six-month deployment.
Most of Steel’s fellow pilots and airmen from several other squadrons gathered in a Shaw air hangar under a large American flag Tuesday morning to formally say goodbye to the 29-year-old comrade who didn’t make it back.
The service included a display of Steel’s flight suit and helmet as well as several photos of Steel in and out of uniform. A bagpiper played taps standing under a fighter plane bearing Steel’s name.
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Several members of the airman’s family sat in the front row for the memorial, and Steel’s father, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Steel, gave his son’s eulogy, recalling the importance the military holds in his family’s life. His children grew up moving from one assignment to another, and three of James’ siblings, including his twin brother, also entered the service.
“Our family is global, international and from all the services,” the elder Steel said. “You have lifted us and carried us with your support. ... We know you will miss him as much as we will.”
Lt. Col. Richard Fitzgerald, who served as Steel’s chaplain, said the pilot was proud of his family heritage.
“They say he wasn’t married, but he was,” Fitzgerald said. “He was committed to God and country, dedicated to his mission.”
Steel graduated from Cactus High School in Arizona in 2002 as class valedictorian and then earned a degree in astronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy in 2006. He was selected for a competitive spot in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program in Texas and was deployed with the 80th Fighter Squadron to Kunsan Air Base, Korea, in 2009. Steel had been based at Shaw since the summer of 2010 and deployed with the Gamblers as chief of mobility in October of last year.
Lt. Col. Johnny Vargas recalled Steel as a larger-than-life character with “an incredible mustache and massive tobacco pipe.”
“He would want this to be lighthearted,” Vargas said. “He was not a stoic figure who would hide his emotions.”
Capt. Christopher Franks attended the Air Force Academy with Steel and served with him on his last mission to Afghanistan. He recalled how his friend got his “Mano” nickname.
“Dude was a beast, and resembled the Man of Steel himself,” Franks said, and thus became Mano Steel.
Capt. Daniel Duncan flew alongside Steel the night of the fatal crash and said his “heart broke” when he landed and realized what had happened. He said his fellow pilot embodied the motto “service before self.”
“He was constantly looking for ways to serve others,” Duncan said, not because he had to but because “that’s who he was.”
The Gamblers’ sadness over Steel’s loss was partly alleviated by the knowledge “this is the profession he chose and loved,” Duncan said. “Mano died serving others.”
Franks said he wanted the memorial to focus not on Steel’s passing, “but on all the remarkable things he accomplished.”
Vargas publicly presented Steel posthumously with the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Meritorious Service Medal and a Bronze Star. Steel’s tactical action in flight over Afghanistan led to the death of at least two insurgents and the capture of “high-value targets” in Kandahar.
“There are definitely Americans and coalition (service members) who are home safe today because of Capt. Steel,” said Col. Clay Hall, 20th Fighter Wing commander. “His death should not go unnoticed.”
Steel’s father focused more on the family’s memories of James. He reminisced about a time his son claimed the higher ground during a family outing to get a better view of a fireworks show.
“He still has the high ground today,” Maj. Gen. Steel said. “He looked up to us, and now we’re honored to look up to him.”