Edwards event honors fallen soldiers | VailDaily.com

Edwards event honors fallen soldiers

Caramie Schnell
Edwards CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Todd Heisler

EDWARDS “-When Jim Sheeler started writing about the Iraq soldiers coming home in caskets, his goals were never political. Instead he simply wanted to write down what he saw ” “because I had seen so much that few others had,” he said.

“I didn’t set out to answer questions, but to raise them in the mind of each reader,” Sheeler said. “I hope everyone who reads the book thinks hard about their role ” or lack of it ” in these wars, and in some way acknowledge the sacrifice of the people who shoulder so much of the burden, and will for the rest of their lives.”

Sheeler is presenting a multimedia presentation at the Bookworm of Edwards today at 5:30 p.m. in honor of Memorial Day.

“Jim Sheeler’s book, ‘Final Salute,’ sheds a light on the lives of the soldiers we have lost in the War on Terror, and how their families and friends cope with that loss,” said Besse Lynch, events coordinator at the Bookworm of Edwards. “Sheeler doesn’t glorify war, he does not attempt to make a case for our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. He simply and poignantly urges us to remember that these men and women belong to a family. They are brothers, fathers, wives and many times just kids, and they give their lives for us.”

Sheeler answered some questions in advance of his Edwards visit.

Vail Daily: When and why did you first start writing about the funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq?

Jim Sheeler: In March of 2003 I was a general assignment reporter (for the Rocky Mountain News) sent to cover the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Slocum, who was the first Coloradan killed in Iraq. I decided I wanted to cover the story differently than other reporters, so I spent time with the family, the gravediggers at Fort Logan National Cemetery and the Marines who brought him home. I continued to report on the homefront from behind the scenes ” in backyards, barracks, airports, living rooms and cemeteries ” for the next five years.

VD: You first started writing the stories for the Rocky Mountain News. What was it like for you when the Rocky closed?

JS: When I heard the news I was scheduled to teach a journalism class at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I tried to tell the class the news, and my voice cracked. I realized I couldn’t say the words, but could write them, so I drove down to the newsroom and wrote one final story. That helped a bit, but it still feels like there’s a gaping hole on my driveway every morning. I learned so much at that paper from everyone in the newsroom, and just as much from all the people who allowed me to tell their stories. Without the Rocky, many of those stories will remain silent, and that’s a loss for us all.

VD: What prompted you to turn the stories into a book? And did you have any hesitancy in doing so?

JS: For months after the initial story ran in 2005, I couldn’t speak about it. Literary agents called me, but I told them I couldn’t do it ” everything was still too emotionally raw. Eventually, I spoke to some of the families about the possibility of a book, and they urged me to try. In 2007, I spent six months sequestered in my basement, revisiting everything, and in a way it was cathartic. Some of the families still say they haven’t been able to read the book ” that it’s too close, emotionally, but they’ve told me they’re happy that more people know ” and feel ” their stories.

VD: Tell me what it was like to win the Pulitzer in 2006?

JS: It was very bittersweet. On the day the Pulitzer was announced, we wanted everyone to know that this wasn’t about us as journalists, it was about the families who allowed us into their lives at the most intimate, raw moments. We brought some of the families into the newsroom to remind everyone that this was really recognition for their sons and husbands. I consider it another posthumous award for all the men I never met.

VD: In the book you peer into the heads of of your subjects’ heads, capturing their inner turmoil. What kind of turmoil were you going through getting so close to your sources in order to share their stories?

JS: I have plenty of tear-stained notebooks. It was very difficult, emotionally, but it had to be. Without feeling these stories ” including the pain and grief ” I think it would have been impossible for me to convey the sense of sacrifice. Still, anything I went through was incomparable to the turmoil of the families. I drew strength from them, and still do.

VD: Are you still in touch with the people you talked to for the book ” the surviving mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and spouses?

JS: I speak with them every chance I can. I feel privileged that they allow me to attend reunions and get-togethers. I promised them that I’ll say the names of the fallen at every chance, keeping their memories alive, and I will for the rest of my life.

VD: Have you had much feedback from Iraq war veterans and/or their families since you wrote this book?

JS: They are among my most cherished messages. I received an e-mail from a pilot who flew many of the Marines out of Anbar province, and said he had nightmares about what happened after they left his chopper, but was comforted to know that they were cared for back home with the same respect showed in Iraq. I received messages from widows who said they’ll save the book for their children, to give them a sense of the experience they were too young to remember. I received messages from casualty assistance officers who served in Vietnam, and, more recently, from officers who said the book helped them get through their first notification. Those letters are better than any award.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.

Who: Jim Sheeler, author of “Final Salute”

Where: The Bookworm of Edwards

When: 5:30 p.m. Monday

Cost: Free. Appetizers will be served and a cash bar is available

More information: Call 970-926-READ

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