Tag Archives: death

Plan ahead: it’s our duty

by Airman 1st Class Alexander W. Riedel, Defense Media Activity Air Force Production

Last year, I dealt with the deaths of two people close to me.

Air Force Week kicks off in New York City

In September, my father passed away unexpectedly at the age of 59, due to an illness. The man I thought to be indestructible suddenly was gone.

Almost exactly two months later, a long-time friend also passed away in the hospital, when complications occurred during a routine surgery. Only a few weeks before, the young athlete had celebrated his 25th birthday.

All I wanted during that time was to retreat and deal with my grief. However, my family was left not just with the emotional pain, but also the dreadful duties of arranging funeral proceedings and disposing of my father’s personal belongings. Needless to say, I didn’t like the tasks at hand.

Although he lived in a clean household, my father’s many financial and legal documents were only haphazardly filed in rows of unmarked binders, threatening to come tumbling off the shelf in an avalanche of paper. His bank information was hidden in a random cabinet, and nothing was labeled or sorted in any distinguishable order or system.

After I returned to my own apartment, I quickly realized my own passing wouldn’t make it much easier for my survivors. While I consider myself to be a tidy person, my apartment is still full of individualized organization that sometimes even makes my wife wonder where I filed the last utility bill.

My friend’s passing especially sent the frightening message that while death at any age is tragic to family and friends, it can happen to anybody, at any time.

I invite you to consider this: If you were to die, how long would it take people to find the things that matter among the unnecessary clutter we often accumulate in life? Are your important documents easily accessible, and does somebody know where to find them?

Luckily, a few simply steps can make a big difference to those left behind.

Why your will will matter

According to the Air Force Legal Assistance website, a last will and testament is a legal document you use to dispose of your property at your death. It may also name people to do important jobs, such as a personal representative or executor of your estate, a trustee if you have established a trust and guardians for minor children.

One of the worst things about my dad’s passing was that he did not leave instructions or wishes. For my family, this meant we had to discuss thoroughly how and where my dad would have liked to have been buried, what to do with his car, furniture and the rest of his possessions.

If my father had had a will, a lot of those questions would’ve been answered for us and the “next steps” would have been expedited.

The most important part about creating a will is simply starting one. Luckily, a will does not take effect until your death and can be discarded and renewed anytime a change in life occurs.

Almost as important as creating and maintaining a will, however, is also making it accessible and safe, keeping it in a fireproof box, for example. As my experience with my father’s bank information showed, documentation does no good unless somebody knows where to find it when it matters.

‘The uninsured life is not worth leaving’

While I was aware that a funeral costs money, the many small expenditures connected to a burial were a surprise to me. From the casket to the headstone, from coffee for funeral attendees to burial plot fees — unexpected expenses quickly rack up.

Life insurance could have alleviated this problem. It is intended to replace the initial loss of income, pay estate taxes, debts and cover funeral costs to the family. Unfortunately, my father did not have a policy, leaving those costs to be covered by his hardly accessible bank account, his remaining paycheck and the rest by his family.

Every active-duty service member, of course, is eligible for the Service Member’s Group Life Insurance, a term life insurance. That means it does not build cash value over time and only provides coverage for the assigned term only. This is an excellent way to protect against premature death on a strictly temporary basis — an example being military duty.

A variety of cash value insurance is available to provide a lasting insurance asset in the form of a cash accumulation account. For military members, it is important to check whether such policies have a “war clause,” preventing their beneficiaries to collect if the service member is killed in war or on duty.

Service members should also make sure that their SGLI is updated regularly to reflect the desired beneficiaries.

Privacy in life, access after death

In addition, there are more private issues to deal with. As I scoured my dad’s house for photos, letters, important documents and memorabilia important to my memory of him, I realized many were digital photos saved on hard drives and his pass-coded computer.

This left many of his photos and favorite music, email accounts and social media, for example, nearly inaccessible and his computer as a vault to the information contained inside.

Consider preparing a list of passwords to your computer and online accounts, so others can access your digital documents even when they don’t share your computer on a regular basis.

Naturally, such a listing should be kept in a safe place, a sealed envelope and safe deposit box; but make sure the bank does not seal or limit access to it after your death.

Talking it over

Finally, more important than legal preparation may be the open conversation with those closest to you. While speaking about your own death may seem callous, it can make it easier for your family to meet your wishes.

Will your family know whether you wanted to be cremated or not, for example? Where you would like to be buried or what you would like your headstone to look like?

I’m not suggesting we live in fear of death every day — but you never know what life has in store for you. After all, not one of us is indestructible.

Instead, I suggest that as Airmen we have a duty not only to our service, but also to our next of kin, our loved ones — those who have already enough to deal with after we’re gone. It’s better to prepare now, before it’s too late.

If you haven’t already, strive to get your things in order and plan ahead for those you love.

For more information on how to establish a will and what Airmen should do to prepare, visit the U.S. Air Force Legal Assistance website, where you can also locate contact information for your local legal office.

Our veterans, my heroes

By Col. George Farfour
90th Missile Wing vice commander

As we approach Nov. 11, Veterans Day, I am reminded more readily that those of us wearing the uniform have a special bond with those who have worn the uniform — our veterans. We share an identity that transcends any differences we may have. We unite in a duty to serve and sacrifice for our great nation, to ensure liberty and freedom continues to have a solid foundation in America as the beacon of hope for the world. I submit for your consideration the story below which occurred earlier in my career. Remembering this story helps frame for me, on a personal level, our obligation to our veterans. I hope it does for you as well.

After an uneventful visit to the base barber shop, I thought I would kill some time in what had promised to be an uneventful day. I decided to visit the clothing sales store — not to buy anything, but just to browse around.

Upon entering, I circled around toward the book section to see what was new. As I picked up a copy of some book, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older gentleman, perhaps 70, struggling to pick out some merchandise. I paid closer attention and saw he was having trouble reading the tags.

Not wanting to appear patronizing, I just watched a while, not offering any assistance. As time progressed and he made no headway in his search, I felt something inside tell me to help. Maybe it was the small Purple Heart pin on his hat that motivated me, I really don’t know. Slowly, I moved toward him and asked if I could help him find something.

I was relieved when he turned and pleasantly said, “Yes, I can’t seem to find the American Defense Service Medal ribbon.” Immediately, I noticed a sheet of paper organized in lists in one hand and ribbons in the other. He was obviously reconstructing his old ribbons and medals for display or wear.

We worked through the list together, talking as we went. He told me how he was finally going to get all of his medals together and put them in a shadow box on the wall for his grandchildren. He had recently received word that he was awarded several medals and decorations from World War II that were forgotten as he was a medic assigned to another unit. The list outlined awards and decorations from World War II and Korea.

As we double checked the list, he explained what each attachment meant. “This arrowhead means an amphibious assault landing — went in on the first wave at Normandy. This Combat Infantryman’s Badge means I was in continuous combat with the enemy for 30 days in a row. We got this one and the Combat Medic’s Badge. This is a new one, the Prisoner of War Medal. Didn’t have that one when I was a POW. This one here, we all got for going to defend South Korea in 1950.”

He didn’t brag, he just stated matter-of-factly what they all meant.

In the course of our conversation, he learned I was an Air Force officer. From then on, he addressed me as “Sir.”

He acted glad that I’d helped, and was even more appreciative when I asked the clerk to run a copy of the “order of precedence” ribbon chart for him to take home. As he walked to the counter to pay for his ribbons and badges, I told him I was honored to help him. He replied, “Thank you, sir.” I thought it was odd for a man of 70 to be calling me sir, but I guess that’s just the type of man he is.

As I walked toward my car, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of injured soldiers he must have helped, the faces he must have looked into and reassured as bombs fell around them and bullets whizzed by, the helplessness he must have felt as he watched someone’s son, husband, father and brother die in his arms. The great exhilarations of battle, the fear of death he faced each day, all swirled in my head. Each time his country called, he was there, ready to do what had to be done. I owe him — we all owe him, and all those like him — for what we have today. This world is not perfect, but it is closer due to their sacrifice.

From the beaches of Normandy to the hills of Korea, he served his country with pride and, from the number of awards, with great distinction. There are many veterans out there with a similar story. Whether it is the jungles of New Guinea, the deserts of Africa, Kuwait or Iraq that their stories highlight, the frigid cold of a Korea or an Afghanistan winter or the¬†rainy season in the Mekong Delta, they all have done this country a great service. When we think of war, we tend to think most often of the dead, but Veterans Day is a day to also remember all those who served their country. Gen. George S. Patton said it best in a post-World War II speech: “Everyone always talks about the heroic dead, well damn it, there’s a lot of heroic alive ones out there, too!”

We see those “heroic alive ones” every day. Perhaps it’s a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, a sticker on a car, a pin on a suit, a Purple Heart license plate, an American Legion shirt, or maybe it’s your dad, grandpa, brother, sister, uncle or just a close friend. If you see one of these “heroic alive ones,” go over and shake their hand just to say, “Thank you.” It’s a small gesture, but a meaningful one. Their greatest pleasure, or payoff so to speak, is the freedom we still have, due in large part to their sacrifice and example.

I met a hero. And though I haven’t been asked to do what he did, I’m ready, when my country needs me. Meeting him, seeing his example and accomplishments, strengthened my resolve and boosted my pride. Some people say there are no heroes left, our kids can’t look up to anyone. Well, I say they’re blind. Heroes are everywhere … you just have to look.

I met one in clothing sales.

Please, hang up and drive

By Don Branum
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

If you’ve been in the Air Force for a while, you might know the name Gary Kunich. He worked for European Stars and Stripes around the time I first entered the Air Force in 1999. He retired in 2006 as a master sergeant, but he has never put down the pen: today he writes for local publications in his adopted hometown of Kenosha, Wis.

Today, he has a new message, one that he’s asking everyone to help spread: “Don’t drive distracted. Put away your electronic devices before you start your engine.”

It’s a message he can’t spread by himself, but it’s one that might have saved his son.

Kunich shared tragic news with a group of military public affairs professionals via Facebook Aug. 14: Devin Kunich, 21, had died a few days earlier when a car hit his bicycle along County Highway H in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., in the early hours of Aug. 7.

According to Pleasant Prairie Police Department reports, visibility was poor: the stretch of County Highway H where the accident occurred has no street lights, and a fog blanketed the area. Devin was riding north, on his way home from the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire, where, according to his obituary, he was captain of the Black Swan swing ride.

At the same time, 18-year-old Quashae Taylor was driving along the same road. She was driving without her glasses and had been talking off and on to her boyfriend on her cellphone. She closed her eyes for what she described as a “long blink” as she answered her phone again at approximately 12:45 a.m.

Taylor probably never saw Devin before she hit his bicycle from behind. The impact flipped him onto her car, where he lay for almost six seconds before falling off. Police would later find his backpack, personal belongings and bicycle seat strewn in a 300-foot trail from the impact site.

Taylor slowed down, called 911 and stopped at the intersection of County Highway H and State Highway 165, a mile north of the accident scene. The paramedics who responded pronounced Devin dead at the scene.

As tragically as the events unfolded, one thing stuck out at me: the police reported that Devin was wearing dark clothing at the time of the accident and was not wearing a helmet. They later found a light which may have been on his bicycle at the time of impact.

I talked with one of my co-workers about the situation on Aug. 15. At the time, police had reported not finding any lights or rear reflectors on Devin’s bike. I asked my co-worker, a fellow bicyclist, how I could write a story without mentioning that it might have been impossible for anyone to see Devin until the last second? Neither of us had a good answer.

That answer came a couple of days later, on the evening of Aug. 17. I was talking to my wife as we walked through Garden of the Gods Park, and as I posed the same question to her, I recalled a similar event about a year ago.

I was driving north along Chelton Road, just north of Fountain Boulevard in Colorado Springs, about an hour after dark. A bicyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no lights on his bicycle, seemingly appeared out of nowhere. I had maybe half a second to swerve just enough to avoid him – and I probably missed him by less than a foot.

Half a second. The blink of an eye.

What if I had been trying to answer my phone instead of paying attention to the road?

Quashae Taylor has no prior record, no criminal history, not even a traffic ticket. Prosecutors have charged her with negligent homicide: she faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The blink of an eye changed her life.

Devin Kunich is dead. The blink of an eye ended his.

Gary and Ruth Kunich must live the rest of their lives without their son. Gary told me he doesn’t want her to face extensive jail time but does want “some jail time and accountability.”

“The hard part is struggling with the forgiveness (balanced with) the accountability,” he said.

But more importantly, Gary and Ruth want people to put the phone away before turning the ignition.

So please, hang up and drive.

Photos: Devin Kunich poses for a photo at the Bristol, Wis., Renaissance Faire in this photo taken by his father, retired Master Sgt. Gary Kunich. Devin was killed shortly after midnight Aug. 8, 2011, by a distracted driver as he was bicycling home from the faire. (Courtesy photo)