ACADEMY, WING HONOR 1ST LT. JOSEPH D. HELTON’S SACRIFICE
By Randy Roughton, U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark applauds as 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr.’s mother, Jiffy Helton-Sarver, watches his father, Joseph Helton, and Senior Airman Chelsea McComb unveil the new sign for the Large Vehicle Inspection Site. The Academy dedicated the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. – The U.S. Air Force Academy dedicated the south gate security facility as the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr. Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10. The inspection site is a security-forces operated force protection facility used to inspect commercial vehicles.

"1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr. is pictured on patrol in southern Baghdad in 2009. Helton died Sept. 8, 2009, of wounds sustained when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device near Baghdad during a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Courtesy photo provided by Jiffy Helton-Sarver)

Academy and 10th Air Base Wing leaders joined Helton’s family, friends and fellow security forces defenders at the dedication ceremony. A large display case containing Helton’s cadet parade uniform and flight suit, which his family provided, is now showcased inside the facility. Helton’s service details are inscribed on a stone made from Terrazzo marble with his motto: “Don’t be a weak sauce.” Helton graduated from the Academy in 2007.

Frontline of protection

Retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Shadd McKee, a former security forces team member who served on Helton’s team in Iraq, served as the ceremony’s emcee.

“This facility serves as the frontline of protection for his alma mater,” McKee said.

"A stone made from Terrazzo marble with the details of 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr.’s service is shown. It is part of a showcase that includes Helton’s U.S. Air Force Academy flight suit and parade uniform. The Academy dedicated the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

Bronze Star Medal with Valor and the Purple Heart medal recipient Helton was killed Sept. 8, 2009, of wounds sustained when his vehicle was hit by an explosively formed projectile near Baghdad. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and the Purple Heart medal. Shortly before the attack, Helton had completed his six-month volunteer deployment but extended it for the opportunity to command his detachment.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 24-year-old Helton deployed as a security forces officer on a police transition team. His team trained, mentored and assisted Iraqi police force members. He was assigned to the 6th Security Forces Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Since Sept. 8, 2016, a memorial statue has stood before Helton Hall at MacDill.

"Cadet 1st Class Morgan Matyoka leads U.S. Air Force Academy Squadron 19 in formation during the dedication of the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr. Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10, 2024. Helton, Class of 2007, was a member of the squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

The Academy community remembers

As a cadet, Helton was commander of Cadet Squadron 19. The Graduate War Memorial includes his name. Located at the north end of the Air Gardens near the flagpole, this polished marble monument is a memorial to the graduates who have lost their lives in combat. The inscription at the top reads “In memory of our fellow graduates who have fallen in battle.” The Association of Graduates presented it to the Cadet Wing in 1970.

Along with Academy and 10th ABW leaders, Helton’s mother and father, U.S. Army veteran Joseph Helton, also attended the ceremony. Helton’s mother, U.S. Navy veteran Jiffy Helton-Sarver, said she hoped the facility’s new name would honor not only her son but the sacrifices of all security forces members.

1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Jr.’s mother, Jiffy Helton-Sarver, poses beside her son’s display case inside the south gate’s large vehicle inspection site. The Academy dedicated the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

Honoring the security forces career that Helton loved

“There isn’t anything that anybody can do or say to fill the space that Joseph left,” Helton-Sarver said. “For me, it means so much to security forces and those who knew Joseph, like his sisters who now have their own children. Hopefully, the dedication of the building will help validate the sacrifices of those in the security forces field.”

As early as high school, Helton consistently preferred being part of a team, his mother said. He chose security forces over a potential career as a pilot because he “didn’t want to be flying over his guys.”

"Then-Cadet 4th Class Joseph D. Helton Jr. poses for a photo at the U.S. Air Force Academy Honor Court during Parents Weekend in September 2003. Helton was killed Sept. 8, 2009, of wounds sustained when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device near Baghdad during a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Courtesy photo provided by Jiffy Helton-Sarver)

Showing his promise as a cadet

During his four years as a cadet, Helton demonstrated leadership skills that he further implemented two years later in Iraq. He regularly stayed up until midnight doing his homework because he spent so much of his day helping others, his mother said.

“He always tried to improve himself,” she said. “Winning was nice, but if he made himself better, he was happy, and he always tried to help somebody who was struggling.”

Then-Cadet 1st Class Joseph D. Helton Jr. walks with family members immediately after participating in the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2007 Graduation Parade. The Academy dedicated the 1st Lt. Joseph D. Helton Large Vehicle Inspection Site in a ceremony May 10, 2024. (Courtesy photo provided by Jiffy Helton-Sarver)

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