Final Salute (Sheeler)

I’ve read a fair number of books about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have been written by soldiers and Marines, others by analysts or journalists. Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives is the most important book I have yet read. Written by the Rocky Mountain News‘ Jim Sheeler, Final Salute is a book-length expansion of a newspaper series by the same name. The original series netted Pulitzer Prizes for Sheeler and Todd Heisler, the photographer, but I hadn’t heard of it until recently.

Sheeler has written an incredibly powerful and moving book centering on perhaps the hardest job in the military: the casualty assistance calls officer whose job is to notify families that they have lost a loved one. Marine Major (now LtCol) Steve Beck had this role for Colorado and Wyoming, and the book chronicles his visits to a number of Marine and Navy corpsman families. Beck is totally committed to this job, and his dedication in support of the families is awe-inspiring.

We don’t get much of a sense of Beck as a person (apart from his obvious integrity and devotion to the Marine Corps and his country), but the same cannot be said of the families Sheeler interviews. Their anguish comes through clearly, but so do their love and pride, and even their esprit de corps. From Indian reservations to Denver suburbs, the families span a wide range of backgrounds and situations.

I admire the deft way in which Sheeler elicits their feelings without seeming intrusive or angering them, and I very much appreciate his political neutrality. This isn’t a book about leaders or government; it’s a book about leadership, principle, and sacrifice. Sheeler writes economically, without a lot of needless embellishment or soppy sentimentality. He’s not flowery, and that makes his prose hit all the harder. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried at several points during the book, but reading it simultaneously renewed my pride in the Marine Corps and in our remarkable nation.

Whatever your political affiliation, whatever your view on the war, I urge you to read this book to get an idea of the kinds of sacrifices that your fellow Americans are making on your behalf. Highly recommended.

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