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Brush Of Honor Paints Portrait of Fallen Pilot

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.

Credit Brush of Honor / INSP Network
INSP Network
The Steel family hang James' portrait in a place of honor in their home, a recreated English pub.

“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.”

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.

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 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.

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.

Credit U.S. Air Force
US Air Force Capt. James Steel.

“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 interred 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.

Bobbie O’Brien has been a Reporter/Producer at WUSF since 1991. She reports on general news topics in Florida and the Tampa Bay region.
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