Jim Sheeler's path to the Pulitzer Prize began simply enough. He was just curious about what was going on behind the scenes during the military funeral for Lance Cpl. Thomas J. Slocum, the first Coloradan to fall in the Iraq war.
"People know the Marines from the recruiting-poster blank stare," Sheeler says during an interview at a caf south of Denver. "As I stood there watching them folding that flag for the last time, I realized there was a lot more going on."
Eventually, people opened up to Sheeler, then a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, including Marine Maj. Steve Beck, who had the arduous duty of informing husbands and wives that their spouses had died at war. Beck, Sheeler says, took a "huge risk" by inviting him and a Rocky photographer along. But Beck wanted the families' stories shared.
"He knew that people needed to see it," Sheeler says. "He's very passionate about that that people have an emotional connection to this war."
The result was an intricate and tender story, "Final Salute," a witnessing of military families coming to grips with the loss of a loved one. The story ran in November 2005, and Sheeler accepted the Pulitzer in April 2006.
This month, The Penguin Press has released Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. The book is already gaining critical acclaim as Sheeler, now a journalism instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, travels the country promoting it. On Tuesday, May 13, Sheeler will be in Colorado Springs to comment on the book. He anticipates that families of the fallen will join his presentation.
Indy: What did you learn from writing these families' stories?
JS: I mostly just learned about the military community itself: The families that go through this every day, not knowing if they're going to get the knock on the door, and yet they are still able to live their lives after two or three deployments. There are kids that are struggling though school, knowing that they may come home and see that van. I don't know if I could do it. It's just a strength that's out there and a sacrifice that I don't think people understand.
Indy: What do you tell people? How do you help them understand?
JS: People say that if you see a soldier in the airport, you should go shake their hand and tell them thank you. I've realized you should also go up to their wife and their kids and say thank you to them, because in a lot of ways they are carrying this burden, and it's a lot heavier than even a 50-pound pack in 100-degree heat.
Indy: You actually put off writing the book because telling the stories also took a toll on you.
JS: After the Pulitzer, I got all these inquires from agents and people who wanted me to write the book, and I didn't even respond. ... I didn't think I deserved it. When you write stories about people who've gone through these tragic situations, it's their story. ... It took a long time before I could even read out loud any of these letters or parts of the book. I got hit pretty hard, and I had to tell the Rocky that I wanted off the funerals for a while because they were taking too much out of me.
Indy: When did you decide you could write the book?
JS: It was a good six to nine months.
Indy: What changed?
JS: I think the biggest thing that changed was talking to the families and asking them what they thought of a book, or expanding these stories into a book. They were all for it, with no exception. These families want their stories to be told.
Indy: How important is it, in your mind, for people to try to go beyond the political platitudes and identify with the tough emotions facing military families?
JS: That's the goal of the book, and it is not that difficult to bring yourself to a more emotional attachment to the war. Send a condolence card to a family. Write a letter to a soldier. Take a day off work and go to a funeral. It will affect you. And next time a name crawls across the bottom of the TV screen, hopefully you'll feel it.