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2008 National Book Award Finalist,

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Jim Sheeler
Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives
The Penguin Press

Jim Sheeler reading at the 2008 National Book Award Finalists Reading from National Book Foundation on Vimeo.

Photo © Annick Sauvageot.


In Final Salute, Jim Sheeler chronicles the painful process through which the United States Marine Corps assists families who have lost members on foreign battlefields. The book’s sincerity and simplicity are integral to its strength. Through the story of each individual life lost and a final and tragic homecoming, readers are given a glimpse into the meaning of sacrifice and a rare opportunity to mourn the loss of fellow Americans sent in harm’s way.


Jim Sheeler won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the story in the Rocky Mountain News that led to "Final Salute." He previously authored the book “Obit” (Penguin Group) based on his narrative obituaries of everyday people. He has also contributed to “Best Newspaper Writing 2006-2007” (CQ Press), and “Life on the Death Beat,” (Marion Press). Sheeler has won numerous national writing awards and has served as a featured guest speaker for military and journalism organizations. Born in Houston, Texas, he has a degree in journalism from Colorado State University and an a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado, where he now teaches. He lives with his wife and son in Boulder.

ABOUT THE BOOK (from the publisher)

“The curtains pull away. They come to the door.
And they know. They always know.”
— Major Steve Beck.

Since the start of the war in Iraq, service members from all branches of the military have found themselves thrown into a mission they never trained for, a mission without weapons.

Casualty notification.

In Final Salute, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jim Sheeler takes us into the mind of a casualty notification officer who embarks on the most important mission of his life, and the page-turning journey of the families he and his comrades touch along the way.


Jim Sheeler's website


Excerpted from Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) May, 2008.

There were no footprints in the snow.

The thought struck the marine major as he stared from his car at the pristine white powder on the sidewalk of the dark, quiet neighborhood street in Wyoming. Soft snowflakes struck the warm windshield, then melted and dripped.

Every second he waited was one more tick of his wristwatch that, for the family inside the warm house, everything was still the same. To the major, the small wooden home looked like it could have been dropped from his own small hometown in Oklahoma—a house his own mother might have lived in, if she were still alive. Now he had to walk up to someone else’s mother, carrying the name of someone else’s son.

Less than an hour earlier, just outside Laramie, the major and his passenger, a gunnery sergeant, pulled the Chevy Suburban into a small gas station and grabbed their garment bags. The two men walked into the station dressed in street clothes. When they emerged from the restroom, their spit-shined black shoes clicked on the floor. Their dark blue pants, lined with a red stripe signifying past bloodshed, fell straight. Their dress blue jackets wrapped their necks with a high collar that dates back to the Revolutionary War, when marines wore leather neckstraps to protect them from enemy swords. As they walked out of the gas station, the major felt the eyes of the clerk.

He knows, the major thought.

Once they arrived at the wooden home blanketed in snow, the major looked at his watch. When he left Denver hours earlier, it was still November 11—Veterans Day, named for the eleventh hour of the eleventh month of the eleventh day of 1918, when an armistice declared an end to “the war to end all wars.”

In Wyoming, it was well past midnight. Veterans Day was over.

Throughout the two-hour drive, the major imagined what would happen at the door and what he would say once it opened. This was his second notification. He had easily memorized the words in the acronym-studded manual.

But the major never liked scripts.


Every door is different. Some are ornately hand-carved hardwood, some are hollow tin. Some are protected by elaborate security systems, some by flapping screens. The doors are all that stand between a family and the message.

For Major Steve Beck, it starts with a knock or a ring of the doorbell. A simple act, really, with the power to shatter a soul.

Marines are trained to kill, an elite fighting force known for their blank stare and an allegiance to their unofficial motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.” Since 2003, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified, marines like Major Beck found themselves thrown into a mission they never trained for—a mission without weapons.

When he first donned the marine uniform, Steve Beck had never heard the term “casualty assistance calls officer.” He certainly never expected to serve as one.

As it turned out, it would become the most important mission of his life.

Excerpted from Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) May, 2008.


Final Salute is currently available at your local library or for sale through most major retailers, including:

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