“I have been pondering for the past three hours over what I should write in this card. However, the only things I have come to realize is how there are no words to describe how much I love you, and will miss you. I will also promise you one thing: I will be home. I have a wife and a new baby to take care of, and you guys are my world.”
2nd Lt. James Cathey, from a note he wrote to his wife the day he left for Iraq. He was killed while on duty in Iraq.

The other day I was in borders just thumbing through magazines when I came upon a photograph by Todd Heisler which was part of a series called ‘Final Salute.’ The photograph showed the wife of a soldier who had been killed in Iraq, asleep at the foot of her husbands casket. It’s a moving picture of love and devotion that earned Heisler the 2006 Pulitzer prize for feature photography.

When I got home I wanted to find the picture and post it here to share with all of you. Some of you will have seen it already I’m sure, but others may not have. But I couldn’t just post the picture with the very little information I knew about it. I needed to put it into context somehow and to that end I went online and started to try to find some background about the picture, something that would tell the story of the picture as if the picture itself wasn’t already telling enough.

I ended up finding out that the picture was part of a feature, originally published on November 11th last year in the Rocky Mountain News, earned its author, Jim Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler spent most of 2005 with the Marines stationed at Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base whose job it was to notify families when a soldier was killed in Iraq.

The picture above shows an American Airlines flight arriving at Reno airport at night bringing home the body of 2nd Lt. Jim Cathey. Passengers look out of the windows of the plane at the family of the fallen soldier who are gathered on the tarmac watching Marines climb into the cargo hold of the plane and drape an American flag over the casket. A few hours prior to leaving for Iraq Cathey had written a note to his wife who was carrying the couples first child. In it he wrote “I will be home.”

“He wasn’t supposed to come home this way,” Said 23 year old Katherine Cathey as she watched the plane bearing her husbands body arrive. “Everything that made me happy is on that plane.”

Above: Katherine Cathey sobs as her husband’s flag-draped casket is taken from the plane. She is supported by casualty assistance officer Maj. Steve Beck, who had notified her of her husband’s death some days earlier.

Cathey clung to the casket for several minutes weeping and refusing to move.

Katherine Cathey drapes herself over her husband’s casket at the mortuary before placing some personal items in it. Flowers from their wedding, a bottle of Jim’s favorite perfume and an ultrasound of their son were some of the things Katherine placed next to 2nd Lt. James Cathey’s remains.

According to the Department of Defense, 2nd Lt. James Cathey was killed in Al Karmah, Iraq, on Aug. 21st (2005). His family were later told by members of his unit that Cathey was killed when a booby-trapped door of an abandoned building he was leading a search of exploded without warning.

In his casket at the mortuary his wife, Katherine, placed a picture of the couple kissing at the top of the casket, above the neck of the uniform. Because of extent of his injuries Cathey’s body was wrapped in a white shroud and covered it with a satin body-length pillow and his dress blue uniform. Katherine bent down and pressed her lips the picture. “I’m always kissing you, baby,” she whispered.

She placed several other photos of their lives together and around the uniform, as well as a bottle of her perfume, and some dried flowers of her wedding bouquet. The final item was an ultrasound picture of their unborn child. The scan had taken place two days after her husbands death on a day that Jim was supposed to call so that he too could learn if his baby would be a boy or a girl. In the end it was a boy, a son who will now bear his absent fathers name. James J. Cathey Jr. After some thought Katherine placed the picture of their son over her husband’s heart.

On the night before her husbands burial, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket and instead requested to be able to sleep next to her husband one final time. The Marines made up a bed for her then resumed their positions, standing watch over their comrade’s body as per her request.

Before eventually falling asleep Katherine played music on her laptop that reminded her of husband.

Final Salute gallery
Honor after the fall : Time magazine
Original Rocky Mountain News article print format (10MbPDF download)
Todd Heisler wins Pulitzer prize
Digital Journalist article about Todd Heisler