Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Untold Stories of War at Home

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Untold Stories of War at Home

Article excerpt

It was among the fresh graves at Fort Logan National Cemetery that Denver Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler met Maj. Steve Beck, the Marine who would help him tell some of the many untold stories of the Iraq war. Sheeler's Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin), based on his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, chronicles the lives of five military families in their yearlong odyssey with Beck, the Marine Casualty Assistance Calls Officer who delivered the news of their sons' deaths and remained on call 24/7 for whatever the grieving family needed for the next year -- or longer.

Sheeler, who had been covering the war's impact on the home front beginning with the first Colorado deployments and following up with families of the injured and dead, knew there were more stories waiting to be told. That "led me to see those scenes that not enough people were seeing," he explains. He wrote about wrenching deployment departures in gymnasiums at sunrise, and about the effect of the war on children around Fort Carson -- "every time they see a TV truck there they know there's been a death," he reveals.

By 2004, he'd attended nearly a dozen military funerals. Covering the posthumous return of Lance Cpl. Thomas Slocum -- the first Colorado serviceman to die in the war -- in 2003 was Sheeler's first story for the paper, and proved the inspiration for the book.

Sheeler took a cue from Jimmy Breslin's famous 1963 column that centered on the man who had dug President John F. Kennedy's grave: The day before the Slocum funeral, Sheeler visited Fort Logan National Cemetery -- a site that as the war continued became part of his regular workplace -- and found the grave digger, a former Marine, digging the grave.

"Everybody else's story began with the church and the politicians talking," notes Sheeler, "but mine began with that Marine, David Turner, a vet who'd worked at Ft. Logan longer than Slocum had been alive." Sheeler started to notice certain rituals and practices the Marines were performing -- such as standing over the casket whenever it was accessible to the public, and stationing themselves at the home of the fallen soldier's family -- that had been unknown to him. He decided to ask Maj. Beck if he could follow him during his task of notifying the families and helping them to cope.

"I'd been to a lot of the homes and seen the same scenes he had," says Sheeler, "but I knew there was so much more. When I see Marines tearing up as they folded the flag flat -- they weren't the Marines that stare down blankly from the Marine recruiting posters." Beck grilled both Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler -- who also won a Pulitzer for his work on the "Final Salute" feature -- "about our political views or lack thereof," Sheeler recalls, and then Beck agreed to cooperate if the families would give their permission too.

"He never got permission from Public Affairs," Sheeler notes. "He felt as long as the families were OK with it, he believed it was OK. In the Marines there is something called 'commander's intent': Marines are given a goal, and not really told how to meet it. I think he felt this story being told was a goal that he needed to reach. He was willing to risk everything to let us tell it."

The military's response overall has been extremely positive. …

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