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On a beach at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in 1988, James Steel, a 4-year-old with messy blond hair and a squint, ran straight for the waves. Big brother Bobby and little brother Chris, and James' twin, Jonathan — all in matching swim trunks — headed back toward shore.
The moment, captured in a photograph, reminds the boys' mother how James, though not the oldest, took the lead from the very beginning. Every Christmas, James told his siblings — four brothers and a sister — what gifts they would get their parents and how much they each owed.
From as far back as Dee Steel can remember, her fearless son wanted to be an F-16 pilot like his father, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Steel, former commandant of the National War College. James Steel ran cross country and track in high school, graduated valedictorian and, like both parents, went on to the Air Force Academy, where he was commander of the same squadron to which his mom and dad belonged more than two decades before.
Capt. James Steel, 29, died April 3 in an F-16 crash while returning from a close-air support mission at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. It was the first deployment for the chief of mobility for the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air force Base, S.C., his mother said. He was due to come home in just three weeks.
The Air Force has said there was no enemy activity in the area at the time his F-16 lost contact with its wingman and the tower as it readied for a final approach to Bagram about 11 p.m. local time. The crash remains under investigation.
For now, James Steel's family is preparing for memorial services.
"It's kind of like a bad dream," Dee Steel said. "[The reality] hits sometimes, and sometimes we can just enjoy the memories."
An Air Force family
James Steel seemed destined for a career in the military. Both of his grandfathers were Air Force veterans. Dee Steel's father served in the Vietnam War and retired as a colonel. Maj. Gen. Steel's father served as the deputy surgeon general of the Air Force, retiring as a two-star.
The couple met at the Air Force Academy. Dee Steel was part of the first class of women admitted to the school. Father and son both served as commanders of Cadet Squadron 28. Today, both names are engraved in the squadron assembly area.
Dee Steel spent four years in the Air Force, leaving after the birth of James and Jonathan. "It was a good thing, because [they] never slept through the night before they were a year old," she recalled with a laugh.
Maj. Gen. Steel retired in January 2011.
"They grew up on fighter Air Force bases around the world," Dee Steel said of the couple's children. "They grew up watching fighters take off and land in their backyards. I think it's in their blood."
Four of the six Steel children pursued Air Force careers. Three are Air Force Academy graduates.
James Steel, as was his fashion, went first, graduating in 2006. While at the academy, he considered becoming a doctor, Dee Steel said.
"But he just got more intent on flying. He loved it. That's what he wanted. He wanted to be an F-16 pilot like his dad. That was his first choice out of pilot training," his mom recalled. "We were very proud of him. We were excited he had chosen that route."
James Steel didn't write off a medical career altogether, though, recently contacting a family friend, the commander of an Air Force hospital, about becoming a flight surgeon.
Jonathan Steel followed his twin one year later at the academy. The former C-17 pilot is stationed at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., where he is part of the Predator program.
Younger brother Chris, a doctor, is a 2008 academy graduate. He will soon begin his residency at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The youngest of the Steel boys, Paul, is a joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. He and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, next month, Dee Steel said.
They will name him after James.
Deployment about to end
There is another photograph of James Steel his mother treasures. He is on another beach, this time all grown up, smiling and squinting into the sunlight as he tosses a football. A dog runs at his heel.
"He was always smiling, always happy," Dee Steel said. In the photograph, posted by a friend on his Facebook page, "you can see it in his face. He loved life. I think he lived two days for every one day. He just got the most out of every day."
James Steel taught himself to play the guitar. He liked to sky-dive. "He loved to work out. He loved fishing," Dee Steel said.
She remembered a recent family vacation to a North Carolina beach: James Steel rented a boat so he and his siblings could go fishing. The boat took on water when they were idle, but then would empty out when they moved.
"He didn't realize there was a plug [for] the boat," Dee Steel said. They were about to come in to shore when James and his twin brother insisted on one more cast. The boat sank.
The Steels still laugh about that.
James Steel last spoke with his family five days before his death. It was Good Friday, March 29. He was upbeat, as usual, and excited to get home after nearly six months in Afghanistan. They talked about what they'd do once they were all together again: See a sporting event, go to an oyster bar they enjoyed.
Now, on what should have been her son's return, Dee Steel will travel to Colorado Springs, Colo. She'll meet her former Air Force Academy roommate and together with as many folks as they can rally, they will hike Eagle's Peak, a picturesque summit that overlooks the campus and seems to touch the sky where her son once flew.