Independence Day: A Personal Observance

Independence Day: A Personal Observance

Clif Cleaveland, MD
3 July 2008

For a personal reflection during the July 4th marking of the 132nd anniversary of our country, I urge you to read Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler (Penguin Book 2008). This book is a tribute to our military forces like no other that I have encountered. It is beautiful, heart-breaking, inspiring, reassuring, non-partisan, and a story that begs to be read by every American.

At the center of the narrative is Marine Major Steve Beck, whose duty in his Colorado district is to notify the next-of-kin when a serviceman has been killed in action. We meet each Marine and Soldier in his life prior to military service. We meet their wives, children, and parents. We learn of the fighting in which each was killed. We follow the caskets bearing remains home and feel the anguish of the military members designated to accompany bodies on their final journeys. Sometimes this is a close friend. We witness acts of kindness by airline personnel and passengers aboard the jets that bear the coffins and their military companions. We attend inscriptions of gravestones, the digging of graves, wakes, and burial ceremonies. Each step in this solemn journey is marked by reverence for the decedent and care of his survivors.

Major Beck, a combat-ready Marine, is one of the most compassionate people that I have encountered. He plans each notification carefully with his accompanying aide. Upon delivering their grim news, they remain with the survivors as long as needed, sometimes for hours. He and his team of honor guards repeatedly address the special needs of the survivors for as long as their help is required. He never forgets a Marine or Soldier whom he represents. It is as if each casualty becomes a member of his personal battalion. The Gold Star families of casualties became part of his family.

We attend the burial ritual of a Lakota Indian whose coffin is borne in a simple horse-drawn wagon to the interior of a tepee for a two-day long vigil.

We meet Navy Corpsman "Doc" Anderson who volunteers to serve with a Marine unit in Iraq. His funeral is attended by a Marine, who is still recovering from the severe wounds from which the corpsman rescued him.

When the widow of Marine Second Lieutenant James Cathey wants to sleep in the room in the funeral home in which his casket rests during the night before burial, Major Beck's team find a mattress, blankets, and pillows for her. They stand guard for her and her husband throughout the night.

Months after the burial of Marine Lance Corporal Kyle Burns, members of his combat unit visit the family to share stories and to comfort each other in their loss.

Major Beck organizes a ceremony, Remembering the Brave, so that posthumously awarded medals can be formally presented to survivors. Prior to his initiative these medals usually arrived in the mail.

Despite the complex tragedies, this is not a book of unrelieved grimness. There are moments of great courage. There is humor. There are profound expressions of marital and family affection. A widow speaks of her rescue by her husband from a life threatened by drugs. An older sibling teaches his brother, born after the death of his father, about his dad and his expectations for them both. Brotherhood within a combat unit is powerfully portrayed. Loyalty is tightly wedded to devotion.

No moment is more dreaded by family of men or women serving military duty in combat zones than the appearance at their door of a pair of servicemen in dress uniforms. Panic, anger, overwhelming sorrow, collapse-such are the crises with which Major Beck is confronted. The stories that follow the knock at each door are treasures. Long after the graves are covered and headstones are set, families and friends cope with their radically changed lives.

Mr. Sheeler, a writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His winning story formed the basis for this remarkable book. Accompanying color photographs poignantly add to A Final Salute.

This book reminded me that each fatality of war stresses and distorts a complex network of relationships that bind us together. Friends, family, including children not yet born at the time of loss, high school classmates, fellow servicemen and women, community elders-singly and intertwined, these lives are forever changed. The binding and healing force for this extended band of survivors is love, the theme of this vital book. I will re-read it and never forget it.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at