05/29/2013 02:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Final Salute : For Everyone Who Opened the Door

For four years, I led a humanitarian nonprofit organization dedicated to honoring our military men and women who have died in active service since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I was privileged to meet thousands of men and women who sacrificed their lives under the American flag, through their letters, their photographs and the honors they publicly received, through their families.

For those uninitiated in the altered state of the bereaved, the kindness of strangers traditionally takes the form of the quiet anonymous gesture -- of sending dollars in an envelope, stopping at the accident scene, bringing a foil-covered meal to a lonely doorstep. Through my personal association with the casualty officers in the United States armed services as well as next of kin, I have come to understand that kindness, at its holiest, comes not by putting a casserole at the doorstep but ourselves.

Then, knocking.

Jim Sheeler, who covered the impact of the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the Denver Rocky Mountain News, won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his story "Final Salute."   From this -- deepened and extended for an unprecedented look at the way America's military honors the families of our fallen -- comes Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (The Penguin Press, 2008, 273 pages).  Dedication: "For everyone who opened the door."

The dedication refers to the dreaded sudden appearance of officer and chaplain on the doorstep. People refuse to open the door. They collapse; they scream. Bereaved loved ones in profound shock have been known to try to assault casualty officers, though violence is rare.

Casualty officers are trained in the particulars of delivering life-shattering news, mortuary issues and patiently offering essential emotional and financial guidance, and approved resources. One of the most important things the nonprofit organization I led as CEO and executive director did was to provide information on our offering -- a gallery-quality original oil portrait of the fallen service member -- with the invitation to call or provide the necessary information and reference photos without the need for any personal interaction, at our cost, as part of the paperwork automatically generated and provided to families at time of death. From the first cold reality of working through forms for insurance, benefits, burial and the like, our gesture was there, whenever the family was ready to request it -- sometimes years later.

Of the thousands of family members I worked with, what I found most surprising, and affecting, was their trust. Even in their grief, with the Department of Defense as partner the families of the fallen trusted us without hesitation. I credit the casualty officers with mysterious excellence in so vitally helping to preserve faith in these families. If anything, because of them a passion and reverence for America and what it represents to the world elevates beyond patriotism to something like secular religion.

My sense of the redemptive value of casualty service unexpectedly circled back to me with Sheeler's reporting on the family of Private First Class Jesse A. Givens, United States Army, whom our organization had served. Seeing a tender photograph of little Carson Givens, asleep under our portrait of his uniformed lost daddy, deeply impressed me that we are all givers of the gift. In understanding the heart of the soldier, this is illuminating. It doesn't matter who we are, only that we served.

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives is a medal, and to the author's dedication I would lovingly add:

And for those who have the courage and caring to come, knowing, to our door in the darkest hour, and knock.


Photo of Final Salute ©Marie Woolf.