RAY SUAREZ: It’s an image frequently used in our popular culture. An American family getting the news that a son, husband, father, and now daughter, has been killed while serving in the Armed Forces.
But the man at the door in dress uniform does much more than simply bring the terrible news. The service people who do that delicate work and the bond they forge with bereaved families is the subject of a new book, “Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.”
Author Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Rocky Mountain News on the war dead of Colorado and the work of then-casualty assistance officer Lieutenant Colonel Steve Beck, and they both join me now.
Jim Sheeler, how did you get hooked on this story in the first place?
JIM SHEELER, Author, “Final Salute”: I was actually — while covering the first casualty from Colorado, I started noticing things that I think a lot of people didn’t see behind the scenes that the Marines were doing, everything from watching over the family’s house while they were at the visitation to make sure nobody robbed it, to standing guard the entire time that the body was laying in visitation or accessible to the public. The Marines were everywhere.
And I kind of saw another side of them that I hadn’t seen before. When you see them folding their friend’s flag for the last time, and you see those eyes tear up, it’s not that blank stare that you see from the recruiting poster, and I decided that I wanted to see what was behind those eyes.
Gathering 'Final Salute' material
RAY SUAREZ: So you wrote these stories for the paper. When did you realize -- or was there a point at which you realized, "I've got a very deep, long story to tell here"?
JIM SHEELER: Yes, I think it was at the point where I met Major Beck, really, which was after I had been covering the war for about two years.
I had this story of trying to follow a notification officer or talk to a notification officer before, but I was unable to do it, just because of bureaucratic problems mainly.
But in those two years, I was able to hang out with families, spend time in the backyards with them, in their living rooms, listen to the widows reading the last letters, play with the kids whose dads weren't going to come home.
And I think, in many ways, it actually prepared me for the time when I finally did meet Major Beck. And then once I did meet him, I think I was ready to tell his story, as well.
RAY SUAREZ: Major, now Lieutenant Colonel Beck, what were you and your unit doing for these families over time that began that relationship that began with the notification?
LT. COL. STEVEN BECK, U.S. Marine Corps: Well, what I tried to do is do everything I could for the families that I would want to have done for my family if it was me. And my Marines -- the guiding principle for my Marines was the same: Do for these families as you would if it was your family.
And so, from 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week telephone access, to how can I help you with your vehicle, how can I help you with the paperwork that needs to be done, is there anything? And the families start to realize that you're there for them.
We feel their pain. We understand it, because we, too, have lost someone very important to us, as our brother or sister, but we're there to be their oak. And that's the most important part for us, and it's the role we play for that family.
And that creates a bond, a relationship that, frankly, when relationships are born in that type of anguish or pain, they rarely go away.
An intimate entry into grief
RAY SUAREZ: You were given the task of delivering the news of a fatality in combat to families back home. One sergeant says to his officer, in one of Jim's stories, "Sir, please don't take me on another one of these." After the first one, did you have that feeling, too?
LT. COL. STEVEN BECK: Yes. In a word, yes. But I knew the nation was at war. I knew we had Marines and soldiers and other service members in harm's way. I knew that the odds of not having another casualty were not low. And so preparing was the most important thing after the first, is preparing for what might happen for the second.
RAY SUAREZ: Jim, reporters often enter the lives of a people that they cover only at an arm's-length relationship, a sort of hit-and-run relationship. Yet throughout this book, the families whose stories you tell, there's a more intimate entry into their grief and their loss.
How do you do that without being a voyeur? How do you do that without getting too close to what doesn't belong to you?
JIM SHEELER: I think you let them guide you. That's what I did, such as Katherine Cathey, who was a pregnant widow who we followed as she watched her husband come home, and we wanted to follow her everywhere.
And I basically gave her the power, and said, "If you let us come along with you, we'd love to be there as much as we possibly can, but if there's ever a minute when you think we're too close, if we're stepping on your feelings or getting too close, all you have to do is just raise your hand or look at us funny and we'll disappear."
And it really cemented this trust, I think, and gave her this power. And by having that trust, she knew she didn't have to use that power.
RAY SUAREZ: The manual probably doesn't include what you and your men did for Katherine Cathey. Tell us how that worked.
LT. COL. STEVEN BECK: Catherine says she would really like to spend the last night with Jim, because the funeral was the next day, and she said she'd even sleep on the pew, if she had to.
And the Marines basically found a blow-up mattress, and got it blown up for her, and blankets and pillows and everything, and put all of that together for her, and so that she could spend sleep that last night with Jim.
And we stand guard over our brothers and sisters. If they're ever open to the public, we want to watch them and take care of them. I mean, it's just part of what we do. We're not finished with our relationship with our brother, our fellow Marine, and so that's -- they would do it for us. We will do it for them.
Learning from families and Marines
RAY SUAREZ: You told Jim, "This experience has changed me in fundamental ways." How are you different?
LT. COL. STEVEN BECK: Before doing this, I had -- I believe -- I had faith. I believed. But now I know.
There's a big distinction between believing and just having faith and knowing, and I think that I've moved beyond that, and now I know a great deal more about me, and a great deal more about my God, and a great deal more about my country and my fellow Marines.
RAY SUAREZ: Jim, has this assignment changed you in fundamental ways?
JIM SHEELER: It's given me just a wider appreciation, I think, for the families, not just the servicemembers who are out there, but the families who are going through this every day, you know, even three to four deployments.
And they're going along with their days, and continuing on, knowing that that knock could come.
The sacrifices that these military families make, I don't think that most of the American public has any -- no, not even close to an idea. And the families who've lost loved ones, too, that it does continue, and that it's OK to talk about them, and remember them.
RAY SUAREZ: "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives," Jim Sheeler, Steve Beck, thank you both.
JIM SHEELER: Thank you.
BECK: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can hear more of Lieutenant Colonel Beck's reflections about the families he has worked with in an audio slide presentation on our Web site. Go to PBS.org and then scroll down to NewsHour.