View Full Version : The Ultimate Sacrifice

05-24-08, 10:50 AM
The Ultimate Sacrifice
And Its Aftermath
May 24, 2008; Page W8

Final Salute
By Jim Sheeler
Penguin Press, 280 pages, $25.95

In wartime, "casualty notification" is the grim job of walking up to a stranger's home and delivering the news that a loved one has died on the battlefield. There are official scripts to follow and manuals with instructions; it's the kind of scene played to great dramatic effect in movies. But as Marine Corps Maj. Steve Beck learned when he was assigned to the task in the early days of the Iraq war at a base near Denver, nothing would prepare him for the all-too-real moments after he knocked on the door or rang the bell, when a parent or a spouse answered and knew in an instant why he was there. As he says in "Final Salute": "You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor."

Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler could not accompany Maj. Beck right up to those doors, but his powerful book -- based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning story -- makes the reader feel present at every harrowing moment of the two years he spent following in the footsteps of this empathetic and honorable Marine with the job from hell. Mr. Sheeler of necessity had to reconstruct the details of those private and tragic first encounters but was a dogged eyewitness to the devastation that followed. He spent time with families as they tried to process this news, honor their dead and get on with their lives, always with the unwavering help and support of Maj. Beck, who held back his own tears while his dress blues absorbed the tears of the wives and mothers he embraced.

Attending funerals and memorial services and sifting through the memories of those left behind, Mr. Sheeler creates rich portraits of the young Americans who lost their lives in the service of their country, including Marine Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns, an ice-hockey playing, tobacco-chewing country boy from Laramie, Wyo.; Army Pvt. Jesse Givens and Marine Second Lt. James Cathey, who both left pregnant wives behind; Marine Cpl. Brett Lundstrom, descended from proud Lakota Sioux warriors; Navy Corpsman Christopher Anderson, who saved the lives of his Marines only to lose his own. Surviving Marines and soldiers play their part in reaching out to the grieving families, sharing details of their comrades' deaths and helping family members cope, even if it means letting a wife crawl into the tank where her husband spent his last moments alive or standing guard all night while she sleeps next to his coffin.

Never maudlin, and not out to make any political statements or judgments about the Iraq war, Mr. Sheeler manages to convey the toll on the families, friends and brothers-in-arms. A mother with two sons at war screams, "Which one is it?" when she learns that one is dead. An Iraq veteran, now a groundskeeper at the cemetery where so many funerals are held, silently promises the mothers: "We will take care of him now." Lakota veterans with eagle feathers on the back of their Airborne or Special Forces caps hold a 42-hour wake with ancient warrior songs. A 7-year-old son vows to teach his new little brother everything about the father he will never know. A sister has her brother's image tattooed on the back of her neck, so he will always be watching her back.

"Final Salute" will strike a deeply personal note with anyone who has had experience with a family member in service; for this reader, it brought memories flooding back of the dread and trepidation we lived with during my brother Christopher's two tours of duty with the Marines in the Persian Gulf, first as a newly minted second lieutenant during Desert Storm and, more recently, as a reservist, when he was called to active duty and served as a battalion commander in Fallujah in 2006. We were the lucky ones, experiencing the relief of his homecoming, the reunion with his wife and daughters, and the joy of seeing him meet his 4-month-old son for the first time.

For the families in "Final Salute," the only homecoming was a casket draped with a flag, and few outside the tight circle of support are even aware of their sacrifice. As one commercial airline passenger says when he learns that one of those caskets is onboard his flight: "This is a war where few of us have family and friends over there . . . most of us don't feel the cost." "Final Salute" is a must-read accounting of that cost but most importantly a tribute to those who must bear it.