Sep 082009
Authors: Lauren Leete

Against a crimson wall, the projected image of white gloves embracing a folded flag tells the story — that flag once covered the casket of a fallen American soldier.

Those same white gloves comfort the families of those who gave their lives and salute their comrades for honor, love and sacrifice.

Jim Sheeler, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Final Salute,” shared his journey with a crowd of CSU community members Tuesday of getting to know the military families during the hardest moments of their lives: losing a loved one.

The story, which originally ran as a series in The Rocky Mountain News, is fleshed out in Sheeler’s book.

“I wanted to show what I was seeing . these small . little powerful moments. I realized there were a lot of things behind the scenes that people needed to see,” Sheeler said.

Lifting his head to the audience and swallowing back tears, he spoke about a photograph by his partner on the story Todd Heisler of a 23-year old pregnant widow lying next to her husband.

Playing what was to be their wedding song on her laptop, the glow from the screen illuminated her face as she lay beneath the covers on a mattress next to his casket, under a picture window, thinking she never wanted to leave his body alone.

“One of the most touching images I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sheeler said. “What she wanted and what I wanted, was to make somebody stop, pause, and just look in that window.”

Author, audience moved to tears

As some people wiped tears from their eyes, Sheeler spoke about a 22-year-old Naval Corpsman, John Dragneff, who escorted the casket of his best friend, Christopher “Doc” Anderson, home.

Sheeler spoke softly about Dragneff trying to squeeze back the tears, as Anderson’s casket came out of the plane.

Dragneff was upset at a photo that had been published depicting him crying, but later apologized, realizing the photo showed how much he cared, Sheeler said.

He continued reading the stories of families coping with their loss, of friends honoring the ones who laid their life down for them and of military personnel who have lost their lives in battle.

During a story about an active duty funeral, where kids lined up along the streets waving tiny flags in remembrance, a soldier said, “I kind of wish they’d do this for us when we come home alive.”

Toward the end of his speech, he told the audience about what the white glove symbolizes.

Sitting next to a rifle guard, Sheeler noticed the guard’s glove had been worn down at the thumb and index finger.

When asked about it, the soldier said, “We do so many of these, sometimes they just blow out.”

Sheeler wishes for everyone to “grasp the hand underneath the glove.” The glove is a reminder to him to look for the person underneath the uniform.

Following his speech was a question and answer session where he shared his knowledge of journalism and how he went about writing “Final Salute.”

A 4th infantry medic and father stood up and said, “You didn’t politicize it . it was about comradeship and family. . On behalf of GIs, you got it. You got us.”

Afterward, Sheeler held a book signing and paid his respects to those in the audience who had family overseas or who had once been at war.

Lani Roering, a Sheeler fan who read the Rocky Mountain News stories, said she was impressed by how the story came together, personalized with the pictures and dialogue.

“I don’t think it could’ve been done better. . People don’t realize the sacrifice these families go through unless you have somebody close to you (in the war) . too many people take it for granted,” Roering said.

The man behind the book

Jim Sheeler, a CSU Alumni and former reporter for the Collegian, said he feels “the best reporting is real immersion journalism, to immerse yourself in a place or someone’s life.”

His former English professor, John Calderazzo, remembers Sheeler’s first paper in his advanced creative writing course, in which he not only shadowed a KCSU DJ, but he immersed himself in a mosh pit, experiencing the venue instead of just watching it.

“He himself got caught up in the dancing. I still remember that from the class. (A) real go-getter likes to do stories about other people. You don’t always find that in young, creative writers. It was clear from the beginning that he really liked telling other people’s stories. He had a very good eye and a very good ear for dialogue,” Calderazzo said.

Calderazzo was proud of his former student, Sheeler, in writing “Final Salute,” saying “he had gained the deep confidence of people during one of the worst times in their lives, and for the amazing amount of compassion he showed other people.”

Before he wrote “Final Salute,” Sheeler wrote obituaries for the Rocky Mountain News.

“I think if I hadn’t started out writing obituaries, I wouldn’t have been able to write “Final Salute.” They taught me really how to listen in those real, emotional raw moments, and how there are lessons everywhere; there are lessons in death that teach us about life,” Sheeler said.

Currently a professor at the University of Colorado teaching feature writing and storytelling, Sheeler “hopes to just keep finding one of these quiet moments that say so much.”

Staff writer Lauren Leete can be reached at

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