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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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.