Katherine Cathey and 2nd Lt. James J. Cathey. Todd Heisler’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographic Series
At the first sight of her husband’s flag-draped casket, Katherine Cathey broke into uncontrollable sobs, finding support in the arms of Major Steve Beck. When Beck first knocked on her door in Brighton, Colorado, to notify her of her husband’s death, she glared at him, cursed him, and refused to speak to him for more than an hour. Over the next several days, he helped guide her through the grief. By the time they reached the tarmac, she wouldn’t let go.
This photographic series won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for Todd Heisler and The Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky Mountain News newspaper closed in 2009.
© All rights reserved by Todd Heisler and Rocky Mountain News.
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Minutes after her husband’s casket arrived at the Reno airport, Katherine Cathey fell onto the flag. When 2nd Lt. James Cathey left for Iraq, he wrote a letter to Katherine that read, in part, “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.”
The knock at the door begins a ritual steeped in tradition more than two centuries old; a tradition based on the same tenet: “Never leave a Marine behind.” When the wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq, Maj. Steve Beck expected to find himself overseas, in the heat of battle. He never thought he would be the one arranging funerals for his fallen comrades.
Major Steve Beck and another Marine approach the family home of 2nd Lt. James Cathey, preparing to escort the Catheys to the airport to receive their son’s body. Five days earlier, the shadows of Casualty Assistance Call Officers followed the same path, carrying the news no military family ever wants to hear. “I’ll never forget Major Beck’s profile,” said Bob Burns of the night he was notified of his son’s death. The gold star flag in the window signifies the death of a loved one oversees.
After arriving at the funeral home, Katherine Cathey pressed her pregnant belly to her husband’s casket, moaning softly. Two days after she was notified of Jim’s death in Iraq, she found out they would have a boy. Born on December 23, 2005, he was named James Jeffrey Cathey, Jr.
Since James Cathey was killed in a massive explosion, his body was delicately wrapped in a shroud by military morticians, then his Marine uniform was laid atop his body. Since Katherine Cathey decided not to view her husband’s body, Maj. Steve Beck took her hand, and pressed it down on the uniform. “He’s here,” he said quietly. “Feel right here.”
The night before the burial of her husband’s body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her, tucking in the sheets below the flag. Before she fell asleep, she opened her laptop computer and played songs that reminded her of “Cat,” and one of the Marines asked if she wanted them to continue standing watch as she slept. “I think it would be kind of nice if you kept doing it,” she said. “I think that’s what he would have wanted.”
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