The "Just in Case" Letter


Love is brave. I think the rest of the world forgets that sometimes. But military relationships require courage, especially before a combat deployment.

Planning to be apart for a year is brave. Imagining what would happen if the servicemember does not come back is braver still. Moving on as if nothing is going to happen and everything is normal is the kind of bravery only love can fuel.

This week Marie Ugenti Tillman, the widow of former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, is working to make being that kind of brave a little easier. In her new book, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, & Life, Marie urges people to be brave enough to write a “just in case” letter to their families. As in:

  • Just in case I don’t come back I want the money used to put the boys through college.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that I was fighting for my country: my country is you and our babies and my mom and my sisters.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that you were everything a wife was supposed to be. That you made my life happy. That even though we didn’t have 50 years together, the five we did have were the fullest, richest years anyone could ever want.
When Pat Tillman wrote his "just in case letter", he wrote: Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.

In her book, Marie writes that the “just in case letter" is the one she read until she had it memorized. It is the one that provided the most comfort over the years.

Although that kind of letter is traditional among troops on their way to combat, few military spouses have ever written a “just in case” letter. Like most civilians, the urgency isn’t there. Writing a letter in which you imagine that you are the one who died is the kind of thing most of us avoid. Yet Marie Tillman argues that it is the most generous thing we could do.

“When Pat asked me to live, he meant that there’s a weight to all of our lives, and he didn’t want me to be frivolous with mine. It was a tragedy that Pat’s life was cut short. But it’s also a tragedy to live a long life that isn’t meaningful. Our lives should have depth, which means pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and not taking the easy way out all the time. That is the only way to really live.”
On her website www.justincaseletter.com Marie Tillman provides instructions about how to write that kind of letter. The website also provides a way to store the letter online.

Deployment offers its own struggles. But it also offers us a period in our marriages that we focus on the long story instead of on the here and now. We know it is brave to go out and face a military life. But it is braver still to be big enough to face all the possibilities that life entails-- and meet those possibilities head on.

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