One-Minute Book Reviews

June 20, 2008

A ‘Casualty Notification Officer’ Brings News No One Wants to Hear

Great photos by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Todd Heisler and others enhance a poignant story of how Americans learn that their relatives have died in Iraq

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John, (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident) (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances.) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
The Marine Corps’s suggested script for casualty notification officers, which they may modify, as quoted in Final Salute

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. By Jim Sheeler. Penguin, 280 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

It seems heartless today that the military once announced combat deaths in telegrams or brief sympathy letters that left relatives alone in their sorrow. Near the end of the Vietnam War, the government changed its policy and began sending two-person teams of uniformed officers to deliver the news instead. And Jim Sheeler shows how harrowing that job can be in this wonderful book about one such officer, Major Steve Beck of the Marine Corps, that grew out of a Pulitzer Prize–winning series with the same title for the Rocky Mountain News.

Sheeler doesn’t say so, but newspapers have reported that the notification policy changed partly because as Western Union offices became fewer, the military started asking taxi drivers to deliver the telegrams. Many of those cabbies — quite understandably — refused the work.

In Final Salute, Sheeler shows why anyone might decline the job now done by servicemen and -women known as “casualty assistance calls officers” or “casualty notification officers.” The military sends teams not just for emotional support but for the protection of the messengers: At the beginning of the war in Iraq, a furious mother slapped a Marine from Beck’s unit.

But the emotional hazards of casualty notification clearly outweigh the physical dangers. Officers do not generally call ahead to announce their visits. But families know instantly why they have arrived. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor,” Beck said.

Sheeler couldn’t go with Beck when he knocked or rang doorbells. But he got as close as any reporter may ever have and followed up with the families. He also interviewed a former Marine who painted the names of the fallen on gravestones and went to a wake on an Indian reservation for the first Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe member killed in Iraq. Some of his most poignant stories involve a fatherless preteen son, who told him, “I get mad when kids tell me the wrong things like, ‘Your daddy died for no reason.’”

Writing in a calm tone and plain language somewhat reminiscent of that of All Quiet on the Western Front, Sheeler never overdramatizes or sentimentalizes his material. He also breaks up long stories into well-crafted shorter segments. This helps to keep his book from becoming almost too painful to read, but at times works against the narrative flow. Sheeler tells us on page 23 that a mother who had two sons at war screamed, “Which one was it?” when she realized that one had died. When he continues her story on page 114, he says she screamed, “Which one is it?” You don’t know if he gives two versions of the question because he had conflicting sources, because he massaged one of the quotes, or because the woman said first one thing, then another.

The story told in this book is so memorable that – with one exception – its lapses hardly matter. Final Salute benefits greatly from the photographs of Todd Heisler, who won his own Pulitzer, for feature photography, for the pictures in the “Final Salute” series in the Rocky Mountain News. Sheeler thanks Heisler in his acknowledgments. But neither he nor the jacket-copy writer mentions Heisler’s Pulitzer. How Sheeler and his publisher could have treated so much of their material so sensitively – and this aspect of it so insensitively – is a mystery.

Best line: Beck’s comment: “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor.”

Worst Line: The failure of Sheeler and his publisher to note that Heisler en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Heisler won a Pulitzer for his photos for the “Final Salute” series www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/feature-photography/works/, some of which appear in this book, including the elegant image on the cover. This is a disservice to Heisler, to readers and to others, including booksellers, who could have used the information in hand-selling the book. Sheeler is a great writer, but the importance of photographers to a story like the one told in the Rocky Mountain News series — without which this book would not exist — cannot be overstated. It is not simply that photographers can raise a story to a higher power artistically or help to persuade reluctant sources to cooperate. Outstanding pictures, such as those Heisler and others took, can help to “sell” editors on a story — to persuade them give it the play it deserves — and to persuade readers to read it. Just below the headline of this review appears a line that shows how easily Penguin could have mentioned Heisler’s Pulitzer, without doing an injustice to the other photographers, in one sentence on the dust jacket. Heisler was also part of a team that won the 2003 Pulitzer for breaking news photography. He is now a staff photographer for the New York Times.

Published: May 2008 www.jimsheeler.com and us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781594201653,00.html.

Furthermore: Sheeler is now a a scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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