Profile of a Hero – Captain Dee “Piston” Imlay

My homecomings from war were always joyous events.  Today’s homecoming of a dear friend and fellow warrior is not, as his wife will meet him at Dover Air Force Base.

Captain “Piston” Imlay (we knew him as “Dee” or “3D”) died Wednesday when the F-15E Strike Eagle he was piloting went down a few miles away from the base at which he was deployed.  His Weapon Systems Officer ejected safely and received only minor injuries.

Piston was an outstanding officer and pilot, and a true hero. But more importantly, he was a loving husband and caring and involved father of two.  I had the privilege of working with Dee during my last assignment, and have seen few folks who could balance the daunting responsibilities of family and mission as he could.

One of the things I remember most about him was that he had a good, but not great, poker face.  As an Instructor Pilot and later a Military Training Officer (MTOs are responsible for the “care and feeding” as well as discipline of a class of 20-ish year old multinational wannabe fighter pilots), he did the best to present a stern visage – and he fooled most of the students most of the time.  But he couldn’t hold that face for long, and sooner or later, a smile would start – first just a smirk, but then it was obvious that he was laughing at least on the inside at the “stupid lieutenant trick” he’d just witnessed.

I continue to be privileged to work with young Americans like Piston, who amaze me with their selflessness and devotion to God, country, their fellow humans, and their families.  As I watch them develop further as leaders and warriors, I often muse whether that character is “born” or “built,” nature or nurture.  I think it’s both.

Born, because as flawed as all people are, I believe only a loving and good God could create anything as beautiful as the character I am so often in the presence of.

Built, because as superb as these young Americans are, I am bowled over by how much better they get.

For us older and hopefully wiser, or at least more experienced, folks, that building of our replacements is one of our chief responsibilities.  It’s a responsibility that Piston took seriously when he worked for me, and what an honor it was to see him take care of his people with such integrity and selflessness.

Dee, by the way, wasn’t the only American to die in theater that day.  In fact, another friend currently deployed watched three other caskets, two soldiers and a Marine, being brought onboard for their trip home on the same flight.  I don’t know those other heroes, but I know their character.

We continually get our senses assailed by stories about what’s wrong in the world, what celebrity is wasting his or her life, what sports star is rising or falling on the field or in the bar, or what promises a politician is making or breaking.  Let’s take a break from that today, and take heart in the midst of our sadness at the privilege we have had to walk the same ground as heroes such as Captain Francis D. Imlay.

As I mentioned earlier, Piston leaves behind a wonderful wife (a heroine in her own stead), and two beautiful children.  When you thank God for Captain Imlay’s service, be sure to ask for His blessings and comfort as his family goes through the most difficult time of their lives.

If you would like to make a donation in Captain Imlay’s memory, you can send a check to the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, PO Box 877, Silver Spring, MD 20918. The AWCF is a 501(c)3 organization, and donations are tax deductible.  Designate in a note that the contribution is for the Imlay children.

To use a credit card you can go to airwarriorcourage.org. There is a DONATE button on the homepage. When you click that there is a GIVE DIRECT button. Fill in the information and include in the comments block that the donations are in the name of the “Imlay family fund”.

The AWCF, by the way, is an amazing organization.  Often, they are on-scene almost as soon as the notification team departs.  They create the college fund accounts, seed them with a generous donation, and then follow up to make sure the fallen heroes are taken care of.  Their Wounded Warrior activities, and those of their sister organization, the Red River Valley Association (“River Rats”) are equally as impressive.  In addition, their administration/overhead expenses are next to nothing – almost everything goes directly to the people that need it.

Piston, 3D, Dee… here’s a nickel on the grass to you, my friend.  We miss you.

My face is red with weeping, deep shadows ring my eyes… Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend. – Job 16:16,19-21

Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13

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