The last word: Death comes knocking

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

Five years ago, the then 40-year-old Marine officer was catapulted into a duty he never trained for, an assignment that starts with a long walk to a stranger’s porch and an outstretched hand sheathed in a soft white glove.

While every door is different, the scenes inside are almost always the same. “The curtains pull away. They come to the door. And they know. They always know,” Beck says. “You can almost see the blood run out of their body and their heart hit the floor. It’s not the blood as much as their soul. Something sinks. I’ve never seen that except when someone dies. And I’ve seen a lot of death.

“They’re falling—either literally or figuratively—and you have to catch them. In this business, I can’t save his life. All I can do is catch the family while they’re falling.”

On a blue-sky Labor Day weekend in a new, upscale residential neighborhood, a middle-aged man mowed his yard as a silver SUV ambled down the street past manicured lawns and half-finished homes. In a place filled with soccer moms and SUVs, the Suburban with government plates didn’t stick out. The two men inside did.

Minutes before, Maj. Beck and Navy chaplain Jim Chapman had parked briefly outside the neighborhood and closed their eyes in prayer. Chapman asked for “words that will bring the family peace.” At the time, Beck didn’t know what those words would be. He never does.

When Beck’s phone rings with news of a Marine’s death, he always feels the pressure of the clock. Once the call is received, the goal for notification is four hours. Troops in the battle zone often have access to e-mail and satellite telephones now, so when a service member dies, the area is placed under “River City,” or R.C. When an area goes R.C., all communication back home is shut off to keep rumors from reaching the family before the notification officers arrive. Still, Beck knew that bad news runs like water downhill, creating its own path. “As soon as we receive the call,” he says, “we are racing the electron.”

When the knock came on this occasion, Katherine Cathey was napping in a bedroom in the home of her mother and stepfather. Her stepfather saw the Marines first.

“We’re here for Katherine,” Beck said quietly. “Oh, no,” Vic Leonard said.

At first Katherine’s mother, Vicki Leonard, thought it was a salesman. Then she saw her husband walking backward and the two men in uniform. “Oh, no,” she said, and then, “She’s pregnant!”

Vic asked his wife to wake Katherine. Vicki shook her head. She couldn’t speak.

Katherine could hear her mother crying—no, wailing—when her stepfather opened the bedroom door.

“What’s going on?” Katherine asked.

“It’s not good. Come with me,” he said.

Katherine’s screams began as soon as she saw the uniforms.

Two Marines are required for each death notification, not just for emotional support, but for each other’s protection. At the beginning of the war in Iraq, one of the Marines from Beck’s unit was slapped by a furious mother. In 2004, a distraught father in Florida set fire to a van that carried the Marines sent to notify him.

The reaction was different on this day. Katherine ran to the back of the living room and collapsed on the floor, holding her pregnant stomach. Finally, she stood, but she still couldn’t speak. As the chaplain and the major remained on their feet, she glared at them. It was a stare the major had seen before. “Maybe that’s what hurts me the most,” Beck says. “That because I’m standing in front of them, they’re feeling as bad as they’re ever going to feel.”

From the beginning, Maj. Beck decided that if he was going to have to serve as a casualty assistance calls officer, he would do it his way, the way he would want it done if he were the one in the casket.

Over the next two years, Beck made a point of learning each dead Marine’s nickname. He touched the toys they grew up with and read the letters they wrote home (“Dakota, you are more son than I could ever ask for … I will always be in our park when you dream so we can still play together”). He held grieving mothers in long embraces, absorbing their muffled cries into the dark-blue shoulder of his uniform. Sometimes he returned home to his own family and cried in the dark.

Beck swears he’s not a perfectionist. “I just don’t like to say no,” he says of his attempts to grant seemingly impossible requests from grieving families—requests that often go far beyond the requirements of the casualty assistance handbook. When one Laramie, Wyo., mother lost her son, she wanted his best friend to be at the funeral even though the young man’s unit was about to deploy to Iraq and he was told he couldn’t leave. “Roger that,” Beck said, and within hours the friend was on his way to Wyoming. He has also negotiated with airport officials who initially balked at requests by families who wanted to see their Marine’s casket unloaded from the plane. He has helped track down personal items that some families thought were lost forever in Iraq.

Most of the Marines who would serve as pallbearers for Jim Cathey had first met the Reno native at the University of Colorado while enrolled in an elite scholarship program for enlisted Marines. They partied with him, occasionally got in trouble with him, and then watched him graduate in only three years with honors in history and anthropology. Of all the Marines they had met or trained with, “Cat” was the one they considered invincible—a kid who made sergeant at 19 and seemed destined to leapfrog through the ranks.

Members of 2nd Lt. Cathey’s unit told family members that he was leading the search of an abandoned building when a booby-trapped door exploded. The explosion was so fierce that it blew an arm and a leg off the Marine directly behind Cathey, though that Marine somehow survived.

When the pallbearers accompanied Cathey’s flag-draped casket on an American Airlines flight into Reno, Maj. Beck was on the tarmac with Katherine Cathey. He held his hand on her back when she pressed her face against the blue field of stars. He guided her to the hearse’s front seat when she decided she wanted to ride with the casket.

Now, at the funeral home, Beck gave the pallbearers instructions that would hold for the next three days. Although the Marines are required to stand watch over a comrade’s body, they usually leave at night once the casket is safely inside a locked mortuary or church. This time, however, the watch would not end.

“Katherine and [Jim’s mother, Caroline,] have both expressed concerns about Jim’s being left alone,” Beck told the Marines. “So we won’t leave him alone.”

Beck told them to take shifts of about an hour at a time. When changing the guard, they were to salute Jim’s casket first and then relieve the other Marine the same way. He showed them a slow salute that isn’t taught in basic training: three seconds up, hold for three, and three seconds down. “A salute to your fallen comrade should take time,” he said.

Beck walked up to the casket and paused.

“Now this is important, too,” he said. “If a family member wants you to break, you can break. They may want to hug you or kiss you. That’s okay. Hug them. If someone wants to shake your hand, shake their hand. Then go back to position. Everyone understand?”

“Yes, sir,” they responded. “Roger that.”

“This is serious business,” he said. “Jim is watching you.”

Moments later, in the emptied room, Maj. Beck walked back to the casket. It was time for the final inspection.

Beck lifted the flag, tucking it into neat pleats and leaving just enough room to open the heavy wooden lid. He walked around the flag several times, making sure each stripe lined up straight, smoothing the thick stitching with his soft white gloves.

Then he lifted the lid.

For the past five days, Beck had spent hours looking at pictures of Jim Cathey, listening to the family’s stories, dabbing their tears. When he looked inside, they were no longer strangers.

For the next 10 minutes, Beck leaned over the casket, checking the empty uniform that lay atop the tightly shrouded body, making sure every ribbon and medal was in place. Occasionally, he pulled off a piece of lint or a stray thread and flicked it away.

Although casualty assistance officers receive an advisory from military morticians about whether a body is “viewable,” some families insist on looking. The casualty assistance officer is often the one to make last-minute recommendations, since by then he knows the family and—after the final inspection—knows exactly what the family will see.

Jim Cathey’s survivors decided not to look under the shroud. But Katherine had requested a few minutes alone with the open casket.

Beck ran his hand alongside the shroud, taking one last look at the uniform. He closed the lid and turned toward the door.

Katherine draped her body over the smooth wood, pressing her pregnant belly to the casket, as close to a hug as she could get.

Beck placed a hand on her back. “Tell me when you’re ready,” he said. “Take your time.” He stepped back.

The air conditioner clicked on, filling the room with a low hum. Ten minutes passed. It clicked off, leaving the room to her soft moans.

Katherine closed her eyes and whispered something. Then she looked up at Beck. “Okay,” she said.

As she stood at his arm, he opened the casket.

She didn’t cry. She didn’t speak. He gave her a few seconds, then took her
hand and brought it to the middle of the empty uniform. He held her hand there and pressed down. “He’s here,” he told her. “Feel right here.”

She held her hand on the spot, pressing the uniform into the shrouded body beneath. She dragged her hand the length of all that was there.

From the book Final Salute by Jim Sheeler. ©2008 by Jim Sheeler. Used with permission of the publisher.