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MacDill statue honors fallen officer who trained police in Iraq

A statue has been installed at MacDill Air Force Base honoring Air Force Lt. Joseph Helton Jr., killed while serving in Iraq in 2009. The base of the statue also lists the names of all members of the Air Force Security Forces killed in action since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A statue has been installed at MacDill Air Force Base honoring Air Force Lt. Joseph Helton Jr., killed while serving in Iraq in 2009. The base of the statue also lists the names of all members of the Air Force Security Forces killed in action since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Published Feb. 3, 2017

It has been nearly eight years since Air Force Lt. Joseph Helton Jr., 24, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. But now, his likeness will stand vigil outside the 6th Security Forces Squadron headquarters building at MacDill Air Force Base.

Helton, widely known by his personal motto "Don't be a weak sauce," was the first Air Force security officer killed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A statue of Helton kneeling, his M-4 rifle at the ready, was unveiled in a ceremony Tuesday attended by family, friends and colleagues. The building is named Helton Hall, also in his honor.

The statue, dubbed "In Defense of Freedom," has a granite base engraved with the names of 13 other Security Forces personnel from the base killed since 9/11. The statue, said Helton's mother Jiffy Helton Sarver, is an important reminder of the sacrifices made by those who serve.

"By remembering the fallen, we honor the living," Sarver said. "This memorial had a price tag, but the acknowledgment of the loss, and the appreciation of the sacrifice it represents is priceless."

Joseph Helton Jr. was born in Milton, Fla., and moved to Georgia at a young age, growing up in the town of Between.

His grandfathers, many uncles and both parents served in the military — his dad in the Army and his mom in the Navy.

"He was always interested in the military," Sarver said in an interview last year. "His first drawings were of ships and planes dropping bombs and Army people, and of course, he had his little green Army men."

Helton nurtured his interest in all things military into high school, where he played soccer and served in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.

It was a tumultuous time in the family's life. Sarver and her husband, Joseph Helton, divorced in 2000 and Helton, the only boy among four children, felt he had to be the man.

Ultimately, Helton applied to both the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Air Force Academy. Getting into either is prestigious. Helton was accepted to both, and opted for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, initially on a pilot's career path.

Then he opted to become a "ground-pounder."

In fall 2008, Helton volunteered for a 365-day deployment to Baghdad, where he filled in for a captain. He worked with a police transition team, according to Helton's biography, tasked with training Iraqi police.

Helton took part in 1,812 combat missions, 392 foot patrols, and 111 warrants within 605 square miles supporting 27 Iraqi police stations inside the jurisdictional responsibilities of 2.1 million Iraqi citizens, according to his biography.

"This impact contributed to a 73 percent reduction in violence," the biography states.

Then in September 2009, Helton volunteered for a mission after another soldier was unable to make it back from leave. Not one, but two cargo planes had broken down.

It was Helton's first mission with his new detachment beyond the safety of a military installation

It turned out to be his last.

Traveling with a convoy in an armored vehicle, Helton was hit by an explosively formed penetrator — one of the deadliest types of improvised explosive devices. He was killed, but his sheer muscular mass likely helped save others in his truck, all of whom survived, his mother said.

For his service, Helton received honors including a Bronze Star with Valor, a Purple Heart, an Air Force Commendation Medal and an Air Force Combat Action Medal.

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While at the academy, where he graduated in 2007, Helton became close to his sponsor, retired Air Force Col. Dennis Keegan.

"We had four terrific years together," said Keegan, who also served as the public relations director for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. "He was like the son I never had."

Helton became Keegan's only mentee.

"I never did it again because I knew I would never get anyone like him again," Keegan said.

So deep was their bond that Keegan contributed the entire $22,000 cost for the statue, one of two made. The other is in Walton County, Georgia.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Nathan Schalles, Helton's commander, helped get the statue initiative rolling, said Sarver, Helton's mother. His replacement, Lt. Col. Melissa Brown, continued the effort. Artist Michael Garman took the project on as a labor of love, Sarver said. Others chipped in for the granite base and transportation, she said.

"The outpouring of love and support following Joe's death by those who knew him was not surprising, as Joe was a very special individual in many ways," Sarver said. "The fact that it continues years later, and by many who never met him, is often overwhelming."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.