Beyond the Battlefield

“You always hear all these statements like ‘freedom isn’t free.’ You hear the president talking about all these people making sacrifices. But you never really know until you carry one of them in the casket. When you feel their body weight, when you feel them, that’s when you know. That’s when you understand." — Staff Sergeant Kevin Thomas, USMC

(A review of Jim Sheeler’s book ‘Final Salute: a Story of Unfinished Lives’)

It has been about 40 years since death notices were delivered by a Western Union guy on a bicycle, a practice that continued through World War II and Korea. In the epic “Saving Private Ryan” a limousine pulls up to the farmhouse and an Army colonel and a monsignor get out. Mrs. Ryan knows that something beyond endurance has happened: three sons dead, one MIA.

During the Vietnam War a good friend of mine drew notification duty twice. When the new widow opened the door and saw him standing there in uniform she burst into tears. He did the same. They cried in each other’s arms for a few endless minutes before she invited him in. His next notification was different. The widow and her boyfriend were in bathrobes. They wanted to know when she would get the proceeds from her husband’s GI life insurance policy.

Another old colleague served on a burial detail. The soldier was the only child of a widower who held himself together with amazing discipline and self-control. After the interment he went to every motel room occupied by a member of the detail, to thank them. His daughter-in-law answered the last door he knocked on.

Recently a father, insane with grief and anger, torched the casualty assistance team’s vehicle. A mother slapped a notification officer hard. People grieve in different ways.

Major Steve Beck knows this. He is an intelligent, well-educated, and well-read Marine, as strong and straight as tempered steel. His home library is lined with books on peace and war, including Lao Tzu and Clausewitz. He has never seen the combat for which he trained intensely, but he was never trained for casualty assistance and notification. It is not a full-time job. In the Army it was one of those “other duties as assigned.” He says imagine your plumber, your doctor, your child’s teacher, your bus driver, being pulled off the job and told to go tell someone, face-to-face, that a person they love has died on some foreign field. Beck wishes he could “suck the pain” right out of them, bear it for them, and the strain shows. He tells no one, but sometimes he cries alone at night, in the dark. He has some Marines under his supervision whom he will no longer order to go with him. One staff sergeant begged the officer he accompanied not to make him do it again.

Letters will follow the personal notification. In Vietnam our squadron commander signed them. They included the bare bones facts of the fatal engagement. If a family member wrote back, asking for details, we provided as much information as we could gather after reviewing after-action reports and interviewing survivors. I know because one of my “other duties as assigned” was drafting those letters. I will never forget two replies. One was from an embittered mother who castigated us, writing that she gave us a healthy son and we sent him home to her in a box. Another was from a widow who managed to be gracious despite her grief. She included photos of the funeral. Several years later she, her posthumous daughter, and her second husband attended the dedication of a building named for her dead husband at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The phone can ring at any hour of the day or night. When it does, Beck is “racing the electron.” Our troops have access to e-mail and satellite phones. Some will use them in violation of a communications “lock down” that goes into effect whenever a service member is KIA, and rumors fly to our side of the world, spreading like a pandemic. He keeps his dress blues in his vehicle and has changed into them at gas stations and fast food restaurants. He fights a budget but will stop at nothing to ease a family’s pain. The mother of a navy corpsman who died saving others wanted her son’s best friend since childhood – also a corpsman – to be able to attend the funeral. It seemed impossible. The friend was on short alert for deployment to Iraq himself. Beck got it done.

No Marine’s casket is left where the public might have access to it without an honor guard. After all arrangements are completed and the funeral home is locked and secured, members of the team get a much-needed rest. But Katherine Cathey, pregnant with her first child, refused to leave the casket the night before her husband, 2LT James Cathey, was buried. Beck and his team found an air mattress, sheets, pillows, and a blanket, and set up a makeshift bed beside the casket so she could sleep next to her husband one last time. Marines stood at rigid attention all night, keeping watch. When Major Beck first called on Mrs. Cathey she refused to speak to him for more than an hour, instead soaking in a tub, trying to “dissolve.” Eventually, she came to lean on him – once literally, as she caught her first glimpse of Jim’s coffin being off-loaded from a jet liner and almost collapsed.

We have abandoned the individual replacement system that plagued us during Vietnam and which was one of the many factors contributing to our defeat. The advantages to unit deployment and return are fundamental and incalculable: morale, mutual support, camaraderie, and “unit cohesion.” President Nixon abolished conscription. Our warriors are all volunteers. Many have asked to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan and they reenlist in large numbers while there. They retain an idealism and “esprit de corps” lost on civilians who have never served. They are intelligent, educated and, in many cases, articulate. The letters left behind are poignant. Casualty notification is so prompt that many reach their families after their deaths. For some, they are a comfort; for others, a continuing torment.

And videos. Many have thought to make them before they leave or while they are overseas. Many are of the “To be viewed in the event of my death” variety, but not all of them. One soldier recorded himself reading a few of his children’s most cherished bedtime stories, including “The Lorax” – a favorite of our children decades ago. His small son now kisses the TV screen as the readings conclude. He will never again kiss his dad in person.

Jim Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, strikes a perfect tone throughout this book. He defies the subject by creating prose that is uplifting rather than maudlin. He has a heartfelt instinct for important themes and a jeweler’s eye for riveting details. He is worthy of the fallen heroes he has saluted.