SA's hobby pays tribute to fallen comrade

  • Published
  • By Wayne Amann
  • AFOSI Public Affairs

On Sept. 30, 2016, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations family tragically lost one of its own when Special Agent (Capt.) Alex Stanton of Det. 421, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., was killed in a motorcycle accident near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.


Although gone, Stanton's story lives on thanks to a fellow agent's passion for woodworking.


As a lasting tribute to Stanton and what he stood for, Special Agent (Capt.) Justin Soderlund, Director of Operations, AFOSI 4th Field Investigations Region, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, created a wood carving depicting the military career of his fallen brethren.


"He and I discussed chasing down child predators the day he passed," Soderlund said. "So his passion for justice for the innocent will always be a part of that piece's story to me."


Stanton's military career spanned time spent with Security Forces, the Air Force Honor Guard and for approximately the last three years as a special agent with Det. 421, his first OSI assignment.


"He wore different badges, but the natural wood shows through them all to signify a dedication to service and officership in all the roles and titles he held," Soderlund said.


The carving was cut from a single red oak board from Soderlund's home state of Minnesota for its grain appearance and hardness.


"These symbols in this type of art represent a heraldry and a heritage that I'm hoping will catch a viewer's eye, hopefully long enough to stop, reflect on the story and find a deeper personal connection to the men and women who wear and wore those badges," the University of Minnesota alumnus said.


Stanton's carving started before Soderlund knew it was time to make it. The OSI badge was designed in July, 2016, and took longer to make than anticipated. He used prototypes and going away gifts to perfect the design. By contrast, the Security Forces badge took an evening to design with its prototype completed the week before he was to start the Stanton project.


"Making it was never a question," Soderlund said. "After the notification (of Stanton's death) his piece was a matter of combining the symbols that tell his military story."


Soderlund traces his passion for wood back to 1888, when his family immigrated to northern Minnesota from Sweden and has been cutting wood ever since. The early days found the Soderlunds involved with small winter logging camps that evolved into saw mills for most of the 20th Century.


Soderlund remembers his grandfather pushing trees through a tractor powered fabric belt driven saw mill, now only found in museums. He grew up following his father around the shop.


"I'm amazed at how few scars I have from all the "learning" I did when he wasn't around," Soderlund said. "Wood working has always been a part of my life. My dad and two brothers operate a mill where they build chainsaw carvings and live edge log furniture."


When SA Soderlund went home for Christmas in 2015 he worked in the shop for the first time in many years which cultivated a new passion for wood carving. His talented artist brother encouraged him to pursue the craft.


"The next day I received a call that we (Region 4) lost two agents in an attack on an OSI mission," Soderlund recalled. "Their patch was my first real project. It sits in my office today."


Soderlund uses his woodworking to reach out to veterans and wounded warriors in the San Antonio community plus fostering collaboration among interested OSI members.


"He's single-handedly improved heraldry in several of our JBSA facilities," said FIR 4 Commander Col. Sharon Burnett. "Monday mornings back at work are much more exciting knowing there will be a new project to see. Each one seems better than the last. This (Stanton) one knocked me over."


Soderlund says the research psychologist who partners with the 4th FIR believes activities like wood carving lowers stress and anxiety, rebuilds neural pathways that allow for stronger cognitive processing and how a finished piece increases self-esteem.


"I'm just excited my hobby is useful because I would never have imagined," Soderlund said. "I made the (Stanton) piece because years from now I want agents to answer the question from a visitor, 'Who was that?' Every piece tells a story."