"The curtains pull away. They come to the door. And they know. They always know."
-- Maj. Steve Beck, U.S. Marine Corps
WASHINGTON -- Sometimes Beck would linger in his vehicle in front of an American home, like that of the parents of Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns in Laramie, Wyo. Beck knew that, as Jim Sheeler writes, every second he waited "was one more tick of his wristwatch that, for the family inside the house, everything remained the same."
Beck -- now Lt. Col. Beck -- was a CACO, a casualty assistance calls officer whose duty was to inform a spouse or parents that their Marine had been killed. He is the scarlet thread -- like the stripes on Marines' dress-blue trousers, symbolizing shed blood -- that connects the heart-rending stories in Sheeler's "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives." The book, which proves that the phrase "literary journalism" is not an oxymoron, expands the meticulous and marvelously modulated reporting he did for the Rocky Mountain News, and for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. His subject is how America honors fallen warriors.
More precisely, it is about how the military honors them. The nation, as Marine Sgt. Damon Cecil says, "has changed the channel." Still, Sheeler sees civilians getting glimpses of those who have sacrificed everything. The glimpses come as the fallen are escorted home. When an airline passenger, noting an escort's uniform, asked if the sergeant was going to or coming from the war, he repeated words the military had told him to say: "I'm escorting a fallen Marine home to his family from the situation in Iraq."
The situation. Sheeler:
"When the plane landed in Nevada, the sergeant was allowed to disembark alone. Outside, a procession walked toward the cargo hold. The airline passengers pressed their faces against the windows.
"From their seats in the plane they saw a hearse and a Marine extending a white-gloved hand into a limousine. In the plane's cargo hold, Marines readied the flag-draped casket and placed it on the luggage conveyor belt.
"Inside the plane, the passengers couldn't hear the screams."