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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17 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for this post !!!! Dee will truly be missed.He was a living example of what a real man should be.He loved and served his country with honor and integrity.He was a fantastic and loving father and husband (and nephew)…..keep his family in your prayers.He will never be forgotten

    Reply

    • All you say is true – a real man of honor and integrity. My condolences to your family. Thank you for all you did to form him into the man he became.

      We will not forget him, or his family. You are in our prayers.

      Reply

      • Dee became part of our family when he and Tami got married 7 years ago.His Mother and Father deserve all credit for raising such a honorable young man. Thank you ! for your service and for sharing your memories

  2. Well said Sir. I will always have found memories of my time at Sheppard, with everyone, but especially with Dee as my sister flight MTO. He was a great pilot, officer, friend, father, and husband. We miss you brother. God bless Tami and the family, and all families with lost loved ones from this war. – Buzzer, Pete, David

    Reply

    • Amen, Buzzer. As I reflect this morning again on those times, I’m blown away again by what an outstanding group of young Americans (as well as Canadians, Danes, Dutch, Germans, Greeks, Italians, Norwegians, Portugese, Spaniards, and Turks) with whom I was privileged to serve at ENJJPT. That of course includes you.

      “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No… but I served in a company of heroes.'” – Sergeant Mike Ramney

      Reply

  3. Posted by Adrienne M. Bailey Davis on April 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Absolutely Beautiful! When I went to high school with Tami and Dee..many years ago, I never would have imagined we’d all be here today, celebrating his life. I’m so glad to know them both. God Bless you all for serving our country with such valor, integrity and grace.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Lisa on April 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    I used to joke with him “Why so serious?? You just got to fly on a beautiful Air Force day!” and that smile would slowly creep across his face but as soon as his student showed up in the 781 room, that serious look would return. When he was in IFF, he was all smiles every day. My condolences to his family and friends.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Liliana Mellor on April 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this…what a great way to pay tribute to a hero! I’m putting together a photo/memorial book of Piston for his family and would love to include this blog. Can you please email me and let me know if it’s okay to do it? If so, I can send you more information about this as well.
    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Absolutely – need to get your email, though. I saw the photo book request go out through Facebook from Seabass and Courtenay and was planning to write essentially these words in an entry. By all means, feel free to use this as you can. – Pat

      Reply

  6. Posted by SandraD on April 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    My heart says, “Great sermon Pastor, I look forward to hearing more”. Dee’s humble spirit touched many lives. We will miss his presence but not his spirit. To Tami and Family~ God has strong shoulders, feel free to use them. You all are in my heart and prayers for comfort, strength and love.

    Reply

  7. I am moved by your post. Your tribute to one you call “3D’ comes from the heart. Your LOVE for your fellow man comes through loud and clear. Optimism for the future comes from the experiences you and Captain “Piston” Imlay and others have shared in positioning yourselves as mentors that are looked up to and respected. As you have commented on, “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.” Those innate traits are supported and enhanced by individuals like you, Dee, and Captain Imlay, and I might add, We, the older generation, as we all become the role models in coping with life’s challenges. Each of us is privileged to share and learn from one another. My heart goes out to Captain Imlay, Dee and family members. My prayers are for spiritual guidance as they, and we, embark on life’s journey with inspiration, spirit, and devotion that he has walked the path and we are to follow. “Pappou:” Grandfather.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the heartfelt words, Pappou. I guess I should add that in addition to the privilege of working with such outstanding young people, I also count it as a blessing that I am able to walk in the midst of elder heroes like you and the rest of the “Breakfast Club.”

      Reply

      • Remember, I’m just the young whippersnapper of the group but like you, I feel honored, privileged and blessed to be in the midst of those very special individuals and hear the tales of their experiences. It is like last evening listening to the communication between flight crews of B-52’s on their visits to Hanoi in the early 1970’s. I give them all, respect and admiration. They are all, TRUE AMERICANS. As you family share Easter, give your family my greetings and blessings. P

  8. Posted by Josh Caldon on March 27, 2013 at 10:13 am

    We miss you Dee.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Iván on March 6, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    my appologies for my bad english I live in south america and I speak spanish and i hope you understand what I want to say. I was review F-15 documentation and could see the case of Capt. Francis Imlay. In another website could see a picture of his wife and his childrens and I am so sorry for this horrible accident. I have 3 childrens and I can imagine what kind of pain crosses Tami´s heart. I am at thousand kilometers of your locations but i think that a prayer it´s strong enought to go anywhere. My hearth is broken for your pain only the time will bring confort.

    Reply

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