What if Uncle Sam cashes that blank check?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephan K. Johnson
  • Commander, 97th Operations Support Squadron
You may have heard the old adage "when you join the military you write Uncle Sam a blank check," one which can be redeemed for any amount, up to and including making the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation. But what do you do if that check is cashed?

While I was preparing to deploy to Iraq last year, I was given a casualty information checklist by our squadron's first sergeant. He asked me to fill it out, but if I didn't fill it out, that I at least discuss it with my wife.

I had deployed several times before so I threw it in my pre-deployment folder with the other various checklists and informational handouts and did not think much of it. I already had my Virtual Record of Emergency Data completed and that's all I needed for casualty information - right? Besides, this would have just been one more thing to get in the way of getting ready to step out the door while trying to spend a few more precious hours at home.

I joked with my family that the most dangerous thing in Iraq now was gaining too much weight at the dining facility with all-you-can-eat Baskin-Robbins ice cream. But in the back of my mind, I knew the danger was still real, and so did they.

I finally had a break one evening and went through some of the informational handouts at the dining room table. I ran across the checklist the first sergeant gave me and it turned out to be much more than I initially thought. It listed some very uncomfortable questions, all related to the possibility of me not coming home. The checklist covered things such as: funeral arrangement preferences down to the hymns I wanted sung and the bible verses I wanted read, organ donor choices, personal effects to be buried with me, locations of sensitive documents, investment and banking information to include account types, numbers, locations, and so much more.

My initial reaction was that my privacy had been violated. How dare they even ask me to bring up those types of questions? They might upset my wife. Then I started to rationalize not discussing it with her. Kelly and I have known each other for 20 years. I'm sure she already knows all that stuff.

Finally, I started to consider the impact it would have on her if something did happen to me. Would I want her to have to make all those decisions on my behalf and worry about whether or not it was really was what I wanted?

We discussed it for a couple hours. There were several uncomfortable moments, but it was very enlightening for both of us - from what the checklist specifically brought up and from many other sidebars. We were both very surprised at several of our answers, but especially that in all our years together, some of these points never came up.

I left for the deployment feeling the most prepared I'd ever been. Of course, I had completed the mandatory pre-deployment training and was equipped with the best protective gear. But I also felt a serenity in the fact that if something did happen to me, I had done everything possible to help my family get through a troubling time.

So do you want to wish away the possibility of Uncle Sam ever cashing that check you wrote? Or are you willing to have that uncomfortable conversation with your loved ones? I think we owe it to them.