Services available for families who gave all
By Dave Smith, staff writer, 21st Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 20, 2017
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
On Thanksgiving Day, 1971, Capt. James Steadman and 1st Lt. Bob Buetel of the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron took off on a mission from Royal Ubon Air Force Base, Thailand in their F-4 Phantom fighter. Steadman was the pilot and Beutel rode in back as weapons system operator. They used the call sign Owl 8.
Around 3 a.m. they made radio contact with their task force radar flight advising they were switching to their assigned tactical frequency, according to Internet accounts of the event. That was the last time anyone ever heard from the two aviators.
The two aviators were declared missing in action. Rescue efforts were discontinued in December of that year. Steadman was declared killed in action in February of 1975. Records show it was Steadman’s 317th mission and Beutel’s 88th.
“I remember when they came to the door to tell us,” said Karin Steadman, James’ daughter who was 4 years old at the time. “Two officers and a chaplain walked up and I remember my mother crying. She was only 27 with two small children. I remember telling her I would take care of her.”
Steadman and her son, Steadman James Brunson, named for his grandfather, were at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, Sept. 15, 2017 to take advantage of the Gold Star Base Access Identification Program that was instituted earlier this year. Through the program, immediate Gold Star family members of fallen Airmen can obtain long-term access cards to Air Force bases to access cemeteries, attend base events and receive additional services provided by the Airman & Family Readiness Center.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 improved assistance for Gold Star spouses and other dependents, said Rhonda Sargent, Peterson AFB A&FRC community readiness consultant/employment manager. Gold Star families are families that have an active duty Airman whose death was the result of combat or terrorism.
“I think it is critical to let the survivors of our fallen heroes know they forever will be part of our Air Force family,” Sargent said. “After all, it is not only members that serve, families serve as well. I was touched by Karin Steadman's story of her father. I feel so much gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice her father made for all of us. Really there are no words except, ‘thank you!’”
Karin heard about the program at a National League of Families POW/MIA meeting. She said the Air Force speaker that day told attendees they were not forgotten and that the Air Force cares for them.
She is the first Gold Star Family member to obtain one of the IDs, Sargent said. Now Karin, and her mother Penelope, can access base cemeteries, like the one at the U.S. Air Force Academy where her father, 1967 Academy graduate, is memorialized.
What the program provides for the Gold Star families now and what it may offer in the future is uncertain, Sargent said. The longer it exists and the more families utilize it could cause it to evolve over time.
For Karin and other Gold Star Families, they seek closure to their sometimes decades-long stories.
“I don’t think that my dad survived,” Karin said. “But I guess there was always a part of me that thought he would come back.”
She said they may never get closure, but more evidence of downed pilots is being discovered. While searching the site of a different downed aircraft a team came across F-4 parts believed to be from Steadman’s crash. Enough is known about the mission he was on to make the site plausible as a place his plane may have went down.
“It’s giving us hope,” Karin said. “(The site) was in between both places he would have gone, either back to base or to refuel.”
Should the current excavation dig up any more evidence of Steadman’s aircraft they may decide a full excavation, dedicated to finding evidence of his crash, is warranted.
“This could be our needle in the haystack,” said Karin. “I’d be interested in going to Laos if they find dad’s (crash) site.”
Joseph Mortati, a retired Air Force pilot and USAFA graduate is helping Karin with research, using his familiarity of AF terminology and procedures to wade through the mounds of data. His support and assistance is valuable in keeping the hope of finding his remains alive.
“Families want and deserve the best accounting possible for their loved ones,” said Karin. “My dad is not a case number. I started bringing photos of my dad to my annual League meetings in Washington D.C. to remind my analyst and other government people that he was a very real person that I really never got to know, not a case number.”
As long as his memory is alive, so is her hope that evidence exists about what actually happened that November day in 1971.
“If my dad's case isn't solved during my lifetime, my son will carry the torch with the ground work that has been laid,” Karin said.