F-16 Fighting Falcon News

Once a Gambler, always a Gambler

April 9, 2013 (by Capt. Ann Blodzinski) - On April 5, 2013, Shaw AFB flags were slowly brought to half-staff at noon honoring a fallen 20th Fighter Wing combat Airman.

Capt. James Steel, 77th FS pilot, stands in front of F-16C block #91-0368 in Afghanistan after a combat mission on November 12th, 2012. Capt. Steel was killed on April 3rd, 2013 after his aircraft crashed returning to base from a CAS mission. [USAF photo by Lt. Col. Tad Clark]

The Airman, 77th Fighter Squadron pilot, Capt. James Steel, died April 3, 2013, after his F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed in Afghanistan. He is the first 20th FW aviator lost in combat since 1945 during World War II in England.

The flags at Shaw AFB remained at half-staff throughout the weekend in observance of Capt. Steel's final trip home.

"Capt. Steel was an outstanding young officer who loved being a fighter pilot - it was obvious from the moment you met him," said Col. Clay Hall, 20th FW commander. "He was well liked and respected within the Shaw community; subordinates, peers and supervisors alike. Mano [Steel's call sign] was proud of serving his country, proud of being an F-16 pilot and proud of being a Gambler. He served his country with honor and made the supreme sacrifice. Mano will be missed, but not forgotten."

On Monday April 8, 2013, Col. Shaun McGrath, 20th Operations Group commander, honored Capt. Steel by allowing members of the 20th OG to wear 77th FS "Gambler" red and black t-shirts under their duty uniforms.

The 77th FS has been deployed since the fall of 2012. In total, Capt. Steel flew 85 combat missions; his efforts in combat saved American and coalition service members' lives, according to Lt. Col. Johnny Vargas, 77th FS commander.

"He flew with great passion and as sad as his loss is, know that Mano died doing what he loved to do," said Lt. Col. Vargas. "He died serving his country, protecting his fellow service members, and accomplishing our nation's objectives. He died a fighter pilot. A hero."

As a base, Shaw has had to keep moving forward, accomplishing the mission. However, you can see and feel the loss everywhere you go.

"Mano was the finest American and patriot warrior," said Lt. Col. Scott Shepard, former 20th Operations Support Squadron commander. "He worked extremely hard enhancing the combat readiness of the 20th FW during his tour in my squadron as the chief of air-to-surface programs. Mano never said 'no' or 'I can't' and never tried to deflect even the most difficult tasking. He was happy, friendly, funny, ever so patriotic, and loved flying the mighty F-16 Viper like you can't even imagine. This young man was truly cream of the crop and there's no explanation on this earth why he was chosen to depart this world early. He will be sorely missed."

Capt. Steel, a 2006 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, is remembered throughout base, not just the 20th OG. The exuberant pilot befriended everyone he met.

"Capt. Steel was an absolute pleasure to work with as a student. I wish I had more students just like him," said Sanetta Holder, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University-Shaw Campus. "He was a good student and a great friend. I'm going to miss him coming in the door smiling, telling me he's ready to register for the next class."

The families of the Gamblers back home also mourn Capt. Steel's loss, here in Sumter, as do those whose lives Mano touched at previous Air Force assignments. The news of the crash resulted in an outpouring of support from the F-16 community, the Sumter community and more.

"I have been stationed at a number of locations through my 17 years in the Air Force. I can honestly say that nowhere else have I felt more close and more cared for by a community than in Sumter," said Lt. Col. Vargas. "The support that has been provided by our community to our Gambler family throughout this tragedy has been incredible. We cannot thank the Sumter community enough for helping us through our loss."

As the Gamblers wind down their deployment, they look forward to returning home and celebrating Capt. Steel; he was the friend who always wore a smile and made you laugh, Vargas said.

"Mano will always be a part of our lives and I can tell you that from this day until our very last, every member of the Gambler family will hold him in a special place in their hearts."

Courtesy of 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

In Memoriam