Widow uses tragedy to educate Team BLAZE
By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 15, 2019
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Ashley Schafer stood in front of familiar faces March 11 in the Mullinax Auditorium on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; some were pilots she had known for almost a decade.
The pilots were silent as her voice echoed around the room while photos of a fighter pilot with the call sign “Tracer” passed on a screen behind her. He can be seen sporting a 49th Fighter Training Squadron patch in one photo and in the next photo, he and his wife, Ashley, pose in a T-38C Talon.
“When you go on leave, have a fun vacation and tragedies happen… we can’t understand why they happened,” Ashley said. “But I’m here to talk to you about everything that happened after August 31, 2014.”
Ashley’s husband, Maj. Richard “Tracer” Schafer III and his brother, Matthew Schafer, were killed while flying Richard’s privately owned plane in Texas while on vacation. He was an instructor pilot with the 49th FTS in 2014. He helped stand up the squadron years earlier and was respected and loved by his peers.
“In our case, we had things prepared in the will and the way we had the Service members' Group Life Insurance set up, I received only 50 percent and each of our daughters got 25 percent,” Ashley said. “Because of the money my daughters inherited, I had to gain legal guardianship of them, even as their biological mother.”
She noted how important it is for everyone to understand exactly where and how money, items and guardianship will transfer if one or both parents were to pass away. Ashley explained how the 49th FTS took care of her the best they could, but nobody could help with the legal battles she’d have to fight, even years later.
Ashley recommends anyone with a spouse should give 100 percent of the SGLI to their partner, while having additional life insurance as well. She also mentioned to the pilots another way to relieve legal stresses after the passing of them or a partner would be to make sure both individuals’ names are on everything from bank accounts to magazine subscriptions.
A Joint Tenancy With Right of Survivorship essentially gives co-owners a right of survivorship, meaning if one owner dies, that owner's interest in the property will pass to the surviving owner. This, as well as bank accounts with set up to Transfer On Death (TOD), can also be extremely helpful financially and allow the spouse to focus more on grieving.
“Nobody wants anything bad to happen,” Ashley said, “but we cannot always control what happens. Prepare your wills, include guardianship, and even create a living will. Make sure to have this conversation with your loved ones … sit down and read over your wills, it’s that important.”
Soon after Ashley’s life was turned upside-down, Richard’s will was shredded in the legal office by accident. She mentioned how, because of a single moment, everything became infinitely more complicated. Ashley recommended making copies of every document, password, as well as titles of ownership and storing them in safes or with trusted family members.
Lt. Col. Darin “Switch” Elgersma, 49th FTS director of operations, was stationed with Richard and Ashley Schafer in 2009. Richard was one of the more senior instructors and the Schafers lived down the street from Elgersma and his family.
“She is still so close with so many families in this squadron even five years later,” Elgersma said. “There’s a comradery when you wear the uniform. There’s an informal support across the Air Force because we all put on the uniform and swore the oath. Everyone here understands the inherent risks involved, especially within the aviation communities.”
Elgersma mentioned how impactful it was to hear the widow of one of his peers look at the crowd, reminding them accidents can happen to anyone.
“I want to pay it forward in my husband’s name and hopefully give some people some hard things to think about in case the worst scenario was to happen,” Ashely said. “In my case my husband was a fighter pilot, he was very good at his job, and he trained future wingmen to go into combat… but he died in an accident. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’re never invincible.”