A defender’s legacy honored: Remembering 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ned T. Johnston
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

MacDill lost a true leader and a revered security forces defender Sept. 8, 2009.


First Lieutenant Joseph D. Helton was the embodiment of an Air Force leader. Voluntarily deployed out of the 6th Security Forces Squadron (SFS) at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Helton served as a flight commander for the 732nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron in Iraq. Instead of going home upon completing his six-month voluntary tour, he offered to stay when the unit needed someone to step-up.


As a leader, Helton longed to understand and know the Airmen he led. 


“He didn’t need to be outside the wire the day his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device, but he was because he wanted his Airmen to know he was there for them,” said his mother, Jiffy. “It just speaks to his character and to who he really was as a person.”


In the weeks and months following that tragic day, the security forces squadron building was dedicated in his name. Helton Hall stands as a tribute to the sacrifice he made for his Airmen, and they are continually reminded of the story of 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton.


“When we get new Airmen here, I ask them, ‘Do you know what building you are in right now?’ and the Airmen will say, ‘Well, chief, I’m in the security forces building.’ I always stop them and say ‘No, you are in Helton Hall,’ and then I will tell them his story,” said Chief Master Sgt. Fitzroy Howe, security forces manager with the 6th SFS, who knew Helton personally.


Exactly seven years after his death, Sept. 8, 2016, Team MacDill paid homage to Helton Sept. 8, 2016. Airmen gathered at Helton Hall to hear his story shared by his mother and the defenders who knew him. 


"Not many people would volunteer to stay in Iraq for another six months when they know they are a plane ride away from being home," said Tech. Sgt. Jaime Perez, a security forces member assigned to the 6th SFS, as he reflected on that tragic September day. "If it wasn't for Lieutenant Helton that day, three other people would have died."


“You know, one of your biggest fears when you lose someone is that they’ll be forgotten,” said Jiffy. “Coming here year after year for this shows me that although I lost my son, I’ve gained a big family of people who want to support me.”


Jiffy wanted to stress that honoring her son’s sacrifice is important, but that there are also 13 other defenders who haven’t come home from their deployments.


“This is bigger than Joe now,” said Jiffy. “This is about reaching out and making sure the families and friends of those 13 other defenders are OK. This is about remembering all the fallen defenders.”


Actions speak louder than her words. A private organization donated money to have a memorial statue placed in front of Helton Hall. The front-facing engraving has the names of all 14 defenders, and the back of the statue will have Helton’s story.


“Joe would want it that way,” said Jiffy. “He always put his Airmen first, so it just wouldn’t be right having him front and center in the place of the 14 names of the fallen defenders.”


A wing formation run around the base followed the ceremony at Helton Hall, bookended by final words from Howe.


“As you go about your day today, think about Lieutenant Helton and what it really means to wear the uniform,” said Howe. “Think about the 13 other defenders we’ve lost and think about the people affected; families, friends, coworkers.”