When soldiers die in battle, the military isn't finished with them. A new chapter of their military history begins at that moment, and continues for years. Starting with the notification of the families and proceeding through transport, burial, and the aftermath, the process of a soldier's death honors and laments the events that preceded it. Jim Sheeler's Pulitzer-winning series of articles for the Rocky Mountain News has been turned into a stirring, sad memoir of his long days and nights alongside the dead and those who live with them. Although virtually every page of Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives will bring tears to readers' eyes, Sheeler's account of the last farewell for five soldiers killed in action in 2005 documents a difficult quest well worth the pain involved for him.
Sheeler and his photographers followed Steve Beck, a Marine major assigned the duty of knocking on relatives' doors in Wyoming. They went with the body of Lance Corporal Brett Lundstrom to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where his Lakota kinsmen mourned him in a continuous two-day ceremony. They rode along with John Dragneff as he escorted the coffin bearing his buddy Christopher "Doc" Anderson out of the cargo hold of a commercial airliner. They stood watch with Marine guards as a pregnant Katherine Cathey slept on a makeshift bed in the funeral home next to the body of her husband Jim. They read the last letters home, monitored the posts on memorial websites, talked to the children deprived of their fathers, and recorded reactions from air travelers who unwittingly accompanied their nation's dead home from the battlefield.
Reading Final Salute is bound to be a painful experience for anyone who fears the loss of a beloved. The sentiments Sheeler describes run the gamut from heroic patriotism to angry dissent. In a chapter titled "Unprepared," he addresses the armed services' frequent failure to care for soldiers and their families well, although the book's five main case studies don't demonstrate any of those flaws. Final Salute is neither anti-war nor pro-war; it's merely pro-human, recognizing the central role that death and its attendant rituals and emotions have always played in our lives. Thanks to Sheeler's determination to reveal this untold story with respect and telling detail, his book will leave few readers unmoved or unchanged.