F-16 top gun DuBois — ‘once in a generation’
RIFLE — The region paused Sunday to lay to rest a native son who had become one of America’s real-life top guns.
About 900 relatives and friends attended the funeral service for Air Force Capt. Will “Pyro” DuBois, who died Dec. 1 when his F-16 crashed in Jordan early in a flight that was to be an attack on ISIS targets.
The flag at Rifle High School, from which DuBois graduated in 2003, fluttered at half-staff in a crisp breeze, helping set the tone for portions of the service held outside.
First, mourners joined an honor guard forming somber lines near the flag awaiting the arrival of DuBois’ casket. At the end, DuBois’ casket was brought back outside for presentation of the flag to his family, a 21-gun salute and F-16s from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada thundering over the school in a missing man formation to honor the 30-year-old New Castle native.
In between those moments in front of the school, longtime friends and military colleagues sought to honor DuBois’ life and console his family with tales of a loyal and funny friend, an adventurer in life who “was the nicest damn guy I ever met,” as college roommate and fellow Air Force Capt. Dan Kulp put it.
Col. Paul Murray, 20th Operations Group commander at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, from which DuBois’ 77th Fighter Squadron was deployed in October to help neutralize the extremist group ISIS, outlined a remarkable beginning to DuBois’ military career.
DuBois had twice been named the top fighter pilot in his class — what Murray described as top gun awards — including in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program, which includes fliers from 13 nations. He had quickly become an F-16 instructor, flight lead and combat commander.
Shortly after DuBois’ arrival at Shaw, he was recommended to Murray to lead a squadron of 14 F-16s and 180 crewmen. Murray said his reaction was that DuBois was too young and inexperienced. The officer making the recommendation said, “Just meet him.” Murray did, and was convinced.
“That kind of officership at that young age is extremely rare,” Murray said. “It’s once in a generation.”
DuBois, who once wrote in a poem that “moderation is for cowards,” celebrated life, leading friends on a hairy scooter ride in Vietnam, singing unabashedly but poorly at parties and joining Air Force colleagues on a memorable “bro-cation” in Australia. And he had a serious side, counseling friends on how to be better men — how to “test everything and hold onto the good,” as Kulp put it.
“Will embodied what it meant to be a better man,” said high school friend Doug Humble. “He was a true student of himself.”
Said Tym Meskel, a friend from youth, “You made men better, not just through thoughts and words, but through actions. … You were never short of dogged persistence aimed at achieving greatness.”
Rare among those his age, DuBois even sent letters to friends at times, with Meskel relating DuBois writing about meeting future bride Ashley Jones while both were in South Korea — DuBois skirting the demilitarized zone with North Korea in his F-16 and Jones teaching English. “She talks funny with her New York accent, but she’s great,” he wrote.
DuBois, Meskel said, was involved in “the fondest memories of my life.”
Kulp, the college roommate, said DuBois was “kind, but had the heart of a warrior.”
DuBois earned an aerospace engineering degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and being a fighter pilot was perfect for him, Kulp said, because an F-16 embodies “science, art, fear, rapture” and more.
“He was a professional man in his element doing what he was born to do. That is a rare and beautiful thing,” Kulp said.
DuBois is survived by his wife, Ashley, to whom he was married on Sept. 30, shortly before his deployment to Operation Inherent Resolve, the operation to combat ISIS, which has seized land in Syria and Iraq in its brutal campaign to form an Islamic empire, or caliphate. He also is survived by his parents, Donna and William “Ham” DuBois, the owner of Innermountain Distributing in New Castle; by a sister, Devon; and her son, Karsen, among many other relatives.
Capt. Joe “Loco” Gagnon, a fellow fighter pilot who wore a flight suit to the service, told Karsen that he was very special to his uncle, who kept a picture of the boy on his desk. Gagnon assured Karsen and the rest of the family that the Air Force and DuBois’ colleagues would always be available to help them in the future.
The hate group Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, which has protested at a range of events around the country, including military funerals, posted a note on its Facebook page that it planned to demonstrate Sunday in Rifle. Dozens of local residents showed up with flags and bedsheets intending to block any such demonstration. No one from Westboro showed up, as is often the case with its publicity-seeking threats to stage protests.
“We’re here for the family,” said Ramy Andersen, a Rifle High graduate. “It’s a win-win situation. Even if (the protesters) don’t show up, the family will see our support.”
Among those paying respects Sunday was Gov. John Hickenlooper, who spoke with Ham DuBois before the service but did not address the crowd.
“Part of the job of governor is being consoler in chief,” Hickenlooper told the PI. “I represent the people of Colorado, so when I come it’s like the whole state is here. It says, ‘You mattered.’”
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Rifle police are investigating a one-vehicle crash that killed a pedestrian Wednesday morning.