NICEVILLE, Fla. --
A breeze occasionally cuts through the late summer humidity and causes the flags to magically rise, ripple and fall. The sight of 360 American flags standing in rows suddenly coming to life in waves is both eerie and moving.
The majestic and overwhelming visuals are only the top layer of experience within the Field of Valor here.
The just-concluded annual Field of Valor event, in its fifth iteration, honors Floridian military members who died in service in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. Each flag represents a fallen service member. On the flag is a tag displaying the member’s name, age, rank, hometown, a brief description of his or her service and date of death. There are 15 rows of 24 flags.
As a Florida resident, Air Force civilian employee and reservist, I seek out the tags of my fellow Airmen each year. Lists are available to locate services and specific military members. I choose not to use them. I take my time to walk among the flags and find those lost names. There were 14 this year.
The first Air Force name I find is Staff Sgt. Bryan Berky. He was an explosive ordnance disposal technician who died in Afghanistan in 2009. As an EOD member, his name was added to the career field’s Memorial Wall in 2010. The wall is located at the DOD’s main training facility only five miles from the Field of Valor. Since the school is a tenant unit on Eglin Air Force Base, where I work, I’ve covered the name-adding ceremony as a photojournalist every year since Berky’s name was added.
The next two tags are for Master Sgt. Tara Brown and Tech. Sgt. John Brown. Both Airmen were 33 years old and died in 2011 in Afghanistan. John perished in a helicopter crash, while Tara was killed in a deadly attack at Kabul’s airport. That incident left eight Airmen dead, including Brown.
Field of Valor fact: The youngest Floridian honored with a flag is Army Private 1st Class Charles Sims, age 18.
Tallahassee native, Staff Sgt. Carl Enis, and Jacksonville native, Master Sgt. William Posch, were unfortunate new editions to this year’s Field. The pararescue Airmen lost their lives in a helicopter crash in Iraq March 15. The 308th Rescue Squadron Airmen were just two of the seven military members who died in the crash.
More than halfway down row five is the flag honoring Staff Sgt. Lee Griffin Jr. Griffin, a South Carolina native, was deployed from a local Eglin AFB unit when he was killed by an accidental explosion during convoy operations in Iraq in 2003. He was 31 years old.
Field of Valor fact: the average age of military members represented in the Field of Valor is 27.5 years old.
Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson’s flag is at the end of row six. Jacobson, a Riviera Beach native, was only 21 and the youngest Airman represented on the Field of Valor. She was the first female Airman killed supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and the first Air Force security forces member killed in conflict since the Vietnam War. Jacobson died from injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device during convoy operations in 2005.
Special operators, Senior Master Sgt. James Lackey, Lt. Col. Gwendolyn Locht and Lt. Col. Darin Loftis were all assigned to the local base, Hurlburt Field. Lackey and Locht passed in 2010. All were deployed to Afghanistan. Lackey was killed in a CV-22 crash while Locht died from a non-combat illness. Loftis died in 2012 during an attack at the interior ministry. Locht had local ties as well. She was born at the Eglin hospital and called Fort Walton Beach home.
Field of Valor fact: The oldest person honored with a flag is Army Lt. Col. Peter Winston, age 56.
Master Sgt. Michael Maltz, another pararescue Airman, is the last Air Force name on the Field of Valor’s eighth row. Maltz died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2003. He was 42 years old.
On the 12th row is Senior Airman Nathan Sartain. This local Pensacola native and security forces Airman died in Afghanistan in a C-130J Hercules crash in 2015. Last year, Eglin’s 96th Security Forces Squadron named its newest patrol boat in Sartain’s honor. I was on hand to document the christening of the boat by Sartain’s mother, Janice.
Field of Valor fact: Floridian Soldiers represent 70 percent of the total flag representations.
1st Lt. Anais Tobar’s flag is in the middle of row 14. In 2016, Tobar, 25, died of non-combat related injuries at a base in Southwest Asia. She was from Miami.
The last lost Airman is Tech. Sgt. Timothy Weiner who died in Iraq in 2007. Weiner was a 16-year EOD technician. His name is also a permanent fixture on the Air Force block of the EOD memorial wall located at Eglin.
I’ve only highlighted four percent of the heroes represented throughout the Field. I had a stunning and chilling thought as I crisscrossed those rows and columns of red, white and blue. Most states may not have a Field of Valor, but every state has lost servicemembers to the current conflicts. Some of those numbers of the lost are small, some are great.
This macro-level thought about the losses and statistics for each state was heart-breaking, but as someone who seeks out the individual’s story, it’s overwhelming.
Each flag represents a person. All of those people chose to serve their country and had a story. My words here never touched the 344 other Floridians and their story. I barely broke the surface on the Airmen’s full story. It is bittersweet to tell this story. I have the opportunity to share a little bit about these Floridian Airmen, but there’s guilt of not being able to highlight and remember them all.
The Field of Valor is a walk among heroes. It is also a walk through honor, sadness and gratitude on a personal level and from a state to its people.