The entire nation mourned last week when Captain Jeff Kuss, a member of the elite flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels, was killed while conducting a practice flight for an air show in Tennessee. It was a national tragedy, a loss of a dedicated pilot representing the very best our country has to offer. I, like millions of others, was saddened by the news, discussing it with friends and sharing supportive posts on Facebook.
Then, this weekend, it took on an oddly personal feeling, even though I did not know Captain Kuss, and have absolutely no current connection to the family. It turns out that Jeff Kuss, who was 23 years my junior, and I have a few things in common. We were raised in the same town, attended the same high school, and graduated from the same college.
And I graduated from high school with one of his uncles.
According to the Air Force, he will soon be returned to my home town of Durango, Colorado for interment.
So why do I now feel more personally connected to a man I never knew, who was born in the same town the year I moved away? I can't describe the reasoning, but it definitely became more personal for me when I learned about the connection. Perhaps it is local pride, knowing that a man being portrayed today as a hero walked the same streets and hallways as I did in my youth. It may be the same “home team” phenomenon that grips sports fans when their local athletes, be they high school, college or pro, get to their seasons final championship.
Or suffer a crushing defeat somewhere along the way.
As far as workplace deaths go, Captain Kuss' accident was one of the highest profile ones we've seen in some time. Many people across the country felt the loss of this young man. Just as I feel some odd connection simply because we grew up in the same place, our citizens identify with him as a member of our national team; a player at the pinnacle of his career, tragically cut short by an as yet to be explained accident.
People die on the job in the US every day. Thankfully the numbers are dwindling, and are currently at the lowest levels of our nation's history. Still, about 4,000 families will grapple with a similarly tragic loss this year, losing someone they love to a workplace accident or illness. Most of them won't be high flying symbols of local or national pride, but they will be no less important to those who closely feel the loss.
We were exhibiting at a conference years ago when a couple guys in the industry happened upon our booth. I don't recall specifically what they did or who they were with (it was not a major industry player), but I will never forget the rave one launched into regarding death claims. He went on about how he “loved death claims” because they were “cheap” in comparison to a lifetime permanent injury. While his partner tried to quiet him down in front of this vendor they did not know, he repeated that phrase numerous times, adding at the end, “the deader, the better”.
Probably not our industry's finest representative.
Everyone is a hero to someone. It is too easy a thing to forget in workers' comp, where our current processes often don't condition us to understand or appreciate the importance of extended family and social networks for the people we deal with. That workplace death claim on your desk may not represent our national pride, but it has hit very close to home for the people in that person's life.
We should remember that. You never know when a workplace fatality will hit strangely close to home.