Books: Final Salute, a review by Bob
July 4, 2008 | Books,Guest post
Bob is one of my favorite readers — and not just of my blog. He won a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 in a caption contest I held last year. He also won an autographed copy of Jim Sheeler’s book, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. He just wrote an incredible review, which I’m sharing here. He plans to pass around the book for others to read. Bob is a military musician who lives in Washington, D.C.
Book review: Final Salute tells heart-wrenching stories of loss
It is often hard for anyone outside the military culture (and even for many within it) to understand why a person would voluntarily step into a job in which the prospect of a violent death looms over every minute of the day. In a profession where the vast majority of career fields are far out of harm’s way, those who do the actual fighting and dying define our perception of what the military is all about. Whatever the personal reasons for doing so may be — for God, for country, for family, for politics, for pay and benefits — putting one’s life on the line is part of the job description for anyone in or near a combat zone.
And so the military has its own protocols and traditions for dealing with the reality of death, affirming the value of life and honoring those who volunteer to serve their country in the most dangerous possible way.
In Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives, Jim Sheeler, a former reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, narrates a year in the lives of the families of several service members who died in Iraq.
The person who touches all those lives is Marine Maj. Steve Beck, a “casualty assistance calls officer.” Informing families of a loved one’s death is not a job anyone can adequately train for; in the military it is often not even the primary duty of the person who must do it. It is a sad kind of good fortune that Sheeler found in his own journalistic backyard a Marine determined to figure out just how to do this heartbreaking job right — whether it is informing next of kin with compassion and understanding; or making sure the casket is respectfully borne from the airplane and presented to the family; or seeing to it that the body of the deceased is attended by fellow service members at every moment until it is properly buried; or helping spouses and children receive the continuing military benefits to which they’re entitled.
Sheeler does not dwell on examples of what not to do, but it’s clear that the care, sensitivity and long-term devotion that Maj. Beck shows his families cannot be taken for granted. Beck disregards the official scripts and other basic guidance the military provides for death notifications and follow-up care. (“[N]o firm instructions can be given to cover the varied and sometimes difficult situations that may arise … ” the manual states.) Instead Beck relies on his own instincts, and the certainty of how he would want his own family treated in similar circumstances.
Nor does Sheeler get into the politics of the war, other than relating the occasional views of grieving relatives. Instead he focuses on how each “unfinished life” complicates and enriches the lives left in its wake:
- Marine Lance Cpl. Brett Lee Lundstrom‘s military honors intermingle with the year-long mourning traditions of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. Army Sgt. Ed Lundstrom goes back to Iraq after his older brother is buried.
- Marine Sgt. Gregory Edwards, still recovering from an explosion that cost him both his legs, insists on going to Arlington National Cemetery months later for the funeral of Navy Corpsman Christopher “Doc” Anderson, the medic who kept Edwards alive after that explosion.
- Army Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Givens’ widow, Melissa, speaks of the discomfort casual acquaintances may feel in her presence: “A couple of people were upset that I was at the Christmas party because I remind them of what can happen to their husband.” Her older son Dakota is taunted by other children: “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things, like ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’ They tell that to me. They even tell that to [younger brother] Carson. Kids are – well, kids are just kids. I know it’s not true. And I make sure Carson knows that, too.” Dakota makes a promise: “I’m going to do everything [with Carson] that my dad did with me. I’m going to take him to the park. I’m going to take him everywhere my dad took me. And if my mom dies, I’m going to take care of him like she takes care of me.”
How can a 10-year-old boy grow up that fast?
The book includes 24 pages of pictures, many of which ran with Sheeler’s original Rocky Mountain News stories, which make up much of the book. Among the most striking of Todd Heisler’s photos is that of a six-man Marine honor guard preparing to remove the casket of 2nd Lt. James Cathey from a commercial airliner, while passengers’ faces can be seen in the plane’s windows.
There is hardly a paragraph or photo in this book that is not heart-wrenching to contemplate, but it is never maudlin or manipulative.
If there’s a message, it might be this simple: These men died doing what their country asked them to do. Their families and communities mourn and grieve and do their best to mend the wounds, fill the gaps and express the meaning of an unfinished life.
About the book
About the author ~ Jim Sheeler won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for the 2005 Veterans Day special report at the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler is now a freelance reporter and scholar in residence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
About the photographer ~ Todd Heisler won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for the 2005 Veterans Day special report at the Rocky Mountain News. Heisler is now a staff photographer for The New York Times.
Rocky Mountain News special report
Related articles, reviews and blog posts
Bylines, University of Colorado at Boulder alumni newsletter
Chattanooga Times Free-Press
Colorado Springs Independent
Columbia Journalism Review
The Daily Item
The Dennis Prager Show
The Digital Journalist
NPR (includes an excerpt of the book)
The New York Times Books
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Not For Attribution
One-Minute Book Reviews
Paul’s Down-Home Page
A Series Of (Un)Fortunate Reviews
Some Soldier’s Mom
Video/audio links on Jim Sheeler’s site
The Washington Post