Next of Kin
A Story of Unfinished Lives
By Jim Sheeler
Penguin Press. 280 pp. $25.95
War's brutality is the secret that civilized societies keep from themselves. Along with the raw, blood-and-guts physical carnage of battle, what often gets minimized is the emotional devastation suffered by military families, whose loved ones have been torn violently from this world.
Home-front anguish is especially hard to capture; while the ferocity of combat can be conveyed in dramatic images of screaming grunts kneeling over wounded buddies, the grief experienced by those back in the States tends to be more private and subtle. It is recorded in still photographs of freshly cut flowers under white headstones or the reaction of a mother who comes home to find Marine Corps officers in their dress blues waiting for her. "Please don't let it be," she pleads. "Please tell me it's not Jimmy. Please tell me it's not my son."
James "Jimmy" Cathey was killed in Iraq on Aug. 21, 2005, leaving behind a wife, Katherine, who was pregnant with their first child. He is one of five young servicemen profiled by Jim Sheeler in Final Salute, which evolved out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story he wrote for the Rocky Mountain News in 2005. Like Cathey, Christopher "Doc" Anderson was 24 years old when he was killed in Iraq on Dec. 4, 2006. Brett Lee Lundstrom, a Lakota Sioux Indian killed on Jan. 7, 2006, was 22. Kyle Burns, who died on Veterans Day 2004, is the youngest of the five. He was only 20. The oldest, Jesse Givens, was killed on May 1, 2003, the day President Bush gave his "Mission Accomplished" speech. If the date isn't ironic enough, Givens died when his tank plunged into the Euphrates River. "Pfc. Jesse A. Givens," Sheeler writes, "drowned in the desert."
But this book isn't about how these men died. Final Salute is about what happens next -- the knock on the door, the transfer of the body, the public ceremonies and the private attempts to mourn, cope and remember. Mostly, it concerns the traumatized souls left behind who represent the invisible casualties of every war.
Featured prominently as well are the notification officers responsible for that first, excruciating visit to the next of kin. These military personnel, who are given little training, discover that the very sight of their government vehicle can prompt screams and outright hostility. In the most extreme case to date, a father who had just been informed by Marine officers that his son had been killed in Iraq set the Marines' van on fire -- with himself inside.
Sheeler spotlights Maj. Steve Beck, who notified the relatives of Burns and Cathey. Beck's compassion seems limitless. More than a shoulder to cry on, though he is that too, Beck is there to assist the families with everything from funeral arrangements to bureaucratic red tape. One senses there is nothing he wouldn't do to ameliorate their grief.
While Sheeler clearly has enormous respect for the families and the notification officers, Final Salute is not hagiography. In one of the book's most painful and infuriating scenes, Sheeler describes how an officer came to the door of Melissa Givens, asked for a "Mrs. Gibbons," read perfunctorily from a written text and then argued with her about whether or not her husband was really dead.
Ultimately, Sheeler pays the deceased troops and their families the great tribute of never reducing them to one-dimensional characters. In succinct, vivid prose, complemented by photographs that illuminate the lives of the young men and their families, he beautifully captures their individuality and unique personalities. At Kyle Burns's funeral, his mother, Jo, was introduced to Terry Cooper, whose son Thomas had also been killed in Iraq. After briefly talking about their boys, Cooper concluded that both were probably hell-raisers growing up:
" 'Was your son as big a little [expletive] as mine?' she asked.
" 'Yes!' Jo Burns said, exploding with laughter and tears. 'Oh, yes!' "
All of these moments that Sheeler has so meticulously gathered act as a powerful counterpoint to the impersonal statistics and verbal camouflage of military euphemisms that sanitize the true horror of war and dehumanize those who serve. Sheeler reminds us that every one of them is distinct, imperfect and real. ·
Andrew Carroll is the editor of "Operation Homecoming," which inspired the 2008 Oscar-nominated film of the same name.