From a question posed to me, or Aviators in general, last week here on the Chant after the loss of a fellow San Diegan, Major Taj Sareen, I started thinking. Normally that's a dangerous thing, getting me to think about one subject or another. It's not risky or dangerous in the real sense of the word, but if you ask me something, chances are I will write about it and bloviate for my Tuesday post instead of something a little more entertaining.
But in all seriousness, the death of a fellow warrior, and especially one that was known by one or two of those here at the Chant, can cause a guy or gal to take stock in their own lives.
For me, that's a wife, 2 kids, a 16 year old Jack Russell, a decent house in a decent neighborhood, a timeshare, and a few dollars in the bank. When distilled down to a simple list, as a bean counter or actuarial might do, it doesn't seem like much.
But it is of course. It's my whole world, and I can't really put a dollar figure on the first 3 items on that list. I have never thought too long and hard about my own mortality though. Unless you have an illness or you've gone through a scare that's a little too close to home, someone my age probably wouldn't have. But just because I haven't thought long about it doesn't mean I haven't considered it at all.
Early in my career the SGLI we were offered when I was first commissioned was raised from $200K to $400K. Some of the guys in the squadron put some serious though into whether or not to accept the higher amount, because that would cost them an extra 8 bucks. "Cheap bastards" I thought to myself. For a lousy 8 bucks, my brother and sisters would have a nice little windfall, there'd be one hell of a wake, and I'd be buried in style.
I was a little more forward thinking than that of course. I knew I'd be getting married, changing my Page 2 (Next Of Kin list in my personnel record), and would have a wife and family to take care of someday. But that's just how I saw it- an easy and cheap way to take care of my family. Not everyone does. I've heard some people say they "don't believe" in insurance. WTF? Don't believe in it? It's not like it's some intangible ghostly apparition. I just don't understand that thinking. But anyhoo. I didn't think I'd die soon, but that's what the life insurance was for- peace of mind in case the worst happens. When it's your time it's just your time, and I wanted to be prepared.
The Military services are quite good at helping us prepare for the possibility- having SGLI, almost forcing us to get a will and update our Page 2, usually before going out on deployment. The first 200K in SGLI was automatic, but it wasn't until later in my career that I found out it wasn't mandatory. I'm sure there are foolish men and women out there that not only declined the additional coverage, but rejected the base amount.
Remember this story? Well, that crash resulted in the deaths of two pilots. It's a tragic story of course, covered well elsewhere, but there's now more to the story. Last month, their wives decided to take action over their deaths, citing negligence. From The Navy Times:
The widows of two helicopter pilots tragically lost at sea in September 2013 have filed a lawsuit against the Navy, arguing that the accident that tore their husbands' still spinning helicopter off a destroyer's flight deck was foreseeable and caused by a well-known defect.
If you read the article, you would find that the senior of the two pilots declined his SGLI!!! I really can't comprehend the shortsightedness of that man, a family man, who flew Naval Helicopters in what is inarguably one of the most exciting careers a person can have, but one that can also be very dangerous and not without risks. Might that be part of the reason she's suing? I have no idea, but his lack of concern for his family, his desire to have maybe eight more dollars in his pocket, has possibly left his family destitute.
Do deceased military members become retroactively eligible for the Survivor Benefit Plan where your spouse gets about half of what would have been your retirement? I don't know. Maybe I should ask my neighbor across the street. She and her 14 year old daughter seem to be doing well, even though the girl doesn't remember her father.
The decision for me was easy. Eight bucks was cheap, and I wanted to be covered. As I built a family, and my son was diagnosed with Autism, I was glad I opted for the higher coverage. No, I still didn't think I'd die because of Naval Aviation, but one never knows. Because of my career, and moving every few years, my wife couldn't have her own career. And due to my son's special needs, having her home with our kids (and therefore able to take him to what was once 4 or 5 appointments each week), there was no way my wife could hold a job, much less have a career.
I realize that cartoon might be seen as me making light of the two mishaps I've already mentioned, but I'm using it to illustrate a point- one that is mentioned in every pre-flight brief, we always have a backup plan. I flew an aircraft that had two engines. Yes, both were needed, but if one went out, the other was your backup plan. If we had to eject, the parachute would automatically deploy and inflate, but there was also a D-Ring as a backup. If we made it to our destination, but it was socked-in due to weather, we always had an alternate field- yet another backup plan.
Living until I'm old and gray (ok, until I'm really old and gray) is my primary plan, but life insurance and the SBP is the backup. After I retired, I replaced the SGLI with even more insurance. Am I over-insured? Not according to my agent. How much is enough? Enough to keep my wife from feeling like she was backed into a corner financially. Keep her in the house? Check. Pay for the kids' college? Check. Help support my son a little bit through adulthood in case he's unable? Check. My wife working isn't impossible, but after 10 or 20 years out of the workforce, starting a career which would provide enough to support her and my kids would be a challenge, hence the coverage. If the house and kids were taken care of, the SBP would provide my wife enough income from my retirement to make things easier for her. If she dies first, it would supposedly be wasted, except for the piece of mind it gives me. Although, as it turns out, my son will benefit from it since he will always be a dependent.
Here's the exchange that took place with one reader when Sarge wrote about Taj:
But I will have to say that based on my knowledge of the fighter jocks I knew in the past, I have a feeling that if God was to tell Taj that he could re-do his life but he would have to choose between being a fighter pilot and knowing how it could end or not flying in his new life, I bet he would still choose being a fighter pilot!And my response:
Maybe Juvat or Tuna could better address this but just my thoughts.
I remember Lex stating at the very end that he'd rather be fighting snakes in the cockpit than having the best day in cubicle hell. I absolutely loved it and wouldn't have traded it for anything, although the thought of risking my life and leaving my family without a husband/father terrifies me now. I never thought about that risk when I was a JO, but definitely did when I was a DH with 2 kids. It's a purely hypothetical question of course, but you do it because you love it and the risks are mitigated by our training and safety factors, which is why we continue. Those factors are not a guarantee though. If I had a crystal ball and knew decisively that I would crash in a jet in England, then no, I wouldn't have chosen to continue, but that's impossible. However, I might have just flown and not gotten married! I was an NFO though and almost always had enough faith in either the pilots abilities, or my own ability to keep the pilot from doing something crazy. That doesn't work for a catastrophic failure of some part, bird-strike, etc., but there was faith in the maintainer as well.
Where am I going with all this? Did you notice the pictures? Other than this last one, which I took last year, they are all photos of the sunrise here in San Diego last Sunday. It's sort of an admittedly forced metaphor for one more day. Seeing the sunrise means you made it to another day. No one knows when they are going to die so you have to be prepared in case it's your last.
If you did know that it was your last day on earth, what would you do? I don't have some bucket list for that day. I think I'd just want to spend it with family. Did you ever see Stephen Spielberg's "A.I."? I enjoyed the movie, and the last scene reminds me of that.
The child just wanted to spend the one day he was given with his mother. I kind of know what that's like. When my own mother passed away, I was unable to make it back to Oregon in time to be with her. One more day would have been nice. If that helo pilot had another, I'm sure he'd choose to protect his family. Major Taj Sareen, even when he was facing death, ejected late in order to keep his stricken jet away from a residential area.
I have never unreasonably thought about my own mortality, but I've tried to prepare for the worst. I'm not sure I'd want to know it was my last day, but if it was, I'd want to know that I lived a life well spent and that I did right by my family. Flying Naval Aircraft and having a back up plan gets me most of the way there, in case there is...
just one more day.