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“Jim Comes Home” – Haunting Pulitzer Prize winning photos and story of the fallen Marine, Second Lt. Jim Cathey

In my previous post, “Memorial Day | Just in case you thought it was National BBQ Day,” I briefly discussed my opposition to war, but proclaimed my full support for our troops and those who have sacrificed all they know and have in order to serve a protect our country. As another blogger, Pied Type, commented, “Hate the war, love the warrior,” in six simple words, she so eloquently stated how I feel, as well as millions of others.

Although I have included these two photos in the “…National BBQ Day” posting, I feel they deserve to be recognized and published along with the story as they are more deserving than being lost and overlooked with all the other graphics and images included in that article.

For the past several years, two photos takes top spot in circulation – on blogs, on social media sites, it is shared and “liked” over and over. Taken by the photographer Todd Heisler, from his 2005 award-winning series for the Rocky Mountain News, “Jim Comes Home,” which documents the return and burial of Marine Second Lt. Jim Cathey, who lost his life in Iraq, this first photo shows his pregnant widow Katherine lying on an air mattress in front of his coffin. She’s staring at her laptop, listening to songs that remind her of Jim. Her expression is vacant, her grief almost palpable.

Photo credit: Todd Heisler/The Rocky Mountain News

In this next photo, Lily Burana from The New York Times poignantly explains what we are seeing perfectly. In Lily’s words:

“…[we see] Lieutenant Cathey’s coffin being unloaded from the cargo hold of a commercial airplane in Reno, Nev., as the passengers look on through the windows. You can practically read the thoughts on their solemn faces: “Who is that?” “What if that were my son or daughter?” “I can’t imagine what his family must be feeling.” “How sad” or “How noble.” I would bet you every penny I have that not one of them was thinking, “When the hell is this going to be over so we can get off this thing?” Two parents lost their son, a wife lost her husband, an unborn child lost his father, and a handful of average citizens saw just how seriously the military treats a fallen warrior’s final trip home.”

Below the photo is the heart-breaking story describing the scene in detail written by Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. The closing line is one of the most tragic sentences I have ever read and it will rip out your heart. Now, excuse me while I grab another tissue to wipe my eyes….

And please…. bring our troops home.

Photo credit: Todd Heisler/The Rocky Mountain News

2006 — Feature Writing

Final Salute (1)
By: Jim Sheeler
November 9, 2005; Page 1 , Part 1

Inside a limousine parked on the airport tarmac, Katherine Cathey looked out at the clear night sky and felt a kick.

“He’s moving,” she said. “Come feel him. He’s moving.”

Her two best friends leaned forward on the soft leather seats and put their hands on her stomach.

“I felt it,” one of them said. “I felt it.”

Outside, the whine of jet engines swelled.

“Oh, sweetie,” her friend said. “I think this is his plane.”

As the three young women peered through the tinted windows, Katherine squeezed a set of dog tags stamped with the same name as her unborn son:

James J. Cathey.

“He wasn’t supposed to come home this way,” she said, tightening her grip on the tags, which were linked by a necklace to her husband’s wedding ring.

The women looked through the back window. Then the 23-year-old placed her hand on her pregnant belly.

“Everything that made me happy is on that plane,” she said.

They watched as airport workers rolled a conveyor belt to the rear of the plane, followed by six solemn Marines.

Katherine turned from the window and closed her eyes.

“I don’t want it to be dark right now. I wish it was daytime,” she said. “I wish it was daytime for the rest of my life. The night is just too hard.”

Suddenly, the car door opened. A white-gloved hand reached into the limousine from outside – the same hand that had knocked on Katherine’s door in Brighton five days earlier.

The man in the deep blue uniform knelt down to meet her eyes, speaking in a soft, steady voice.

“Katherine,” said Maj. Steve Beck, “it’s time.”

Closer than brothers

The American Airlines 757 couldn’t have landed much farther from the war.

The plane arrived in Reno on a Friday evening, the beginning of the 2005 “Hot August Nights” festival – one of the city’s biggest – filled with flashing lights, fireworks, carefree music and plenty of gambling.

When a young Marine in dress uniform had boarded the plane to Reno, the passengers smiled and nodded politely. None knew he had just come from the plane’s cargo hold, after watching his best friend’s casket loaded onboard.

At 24 years old, Sgt. Gavin Conley was only seven days younger than the man in the coffin. The two had met as 17-year-olds on another plane – the one to boot camp in California. They had slept in adjoining top bunks, the two youngest recruits in the barracks.

All Marines call each other brother. Conley and Jim Cathey could have been. They finished each other’s sentences, had matching infantry tattoos etched on their shoulders, and cracked on each other as if they had grown up together – which, in some ways, they had.

When the airline crew found out about Conley’s mission, they bumped him to first-class. He had never flown there before. Neither had Jim Cathey.

On the flight, the woman sitting next to him nodded toward his uniform and asked if he was coming or going. To the war, she meant.

He fell back on the words the military had told him to say: “I’m escorting a fallen Marine home to his family from the situation in Iraq.”

The woman quietly said she was sorry, Conley said.

Then she began to cry.

When the plane landed in Nevada, the pilot asked the passengers to remain seated while Conley disembarked alone. Then the pilot told them why.

The passengers pressed their faces against the windows. Outside, a procession walked toward the plane. Passengers in window seats leaned back to give others a better view. One held a child up to watch.

From their seats in the plane, they saw a hearse and a Marine extending a white-gloved hand into a limousine, helping a pregnant woman out of the car.

On the tarmac, Katherine Cathey wrapped her arm around the major’s, steadying herself. Then her eyes locked on the cargo hold and the flag-draped casket.

Inside the plane, they couldn’t hear the screams.

© 2005 Rocky Mountain News

References and sources:

Pictures of the Year, International:  First Place
Pictures of the Year, International:  Second Place
The New York Times:  As Memorial Day Nears, a Single Image That Continues to Haunt
The Pulitzer Prizes:  Jim Sheeler
The Pulitzer Prizes:  2006 Feature Writing “Final Salute”


  1. Makes me cry, and I wasn’t even in this war, but another, much removed from you.

    Don’t forget there are other places and people who have been in a similar position, and who came home with a lot less ceremony, and even less mention.

  2. Thank You. Michelle; Does our President read your Posts?? If i ever get a chance to meet you all i can say is if not for you I would not know some of these life changing events. My heart breaks for her that last line was almost to much…( sorry bout incorrectness of spelling etc. hard to be correct with tears and kleenex)

    • Oh, I seriously – very seriously – doubt that Obama reads anything on this site. There are WAAAAAYYY too many sites out there – and I’m sure many, if not most, are much better than mine. Of course it would be such an enormous honor if he were to read anything on this site, but I’m 99.9% sure he has not. But thank you so much for your compliments. That means a lot since my goal is to share what I find and my feelings. My goal is to present info, offer my opinion but strongly emphasis that everyone is to formulate their own opinions.

  3. Ok where can I get the original “writings” of these??? Is there a place to read all of the P. prize winners? i am a small town library/laptop girl. any web-sites or???? Perhaps a book or??? Where do I start/ I so enjoy what you have started in me, i Need to know more!!!! Please and Thanks Again……

    • Here is the main Pulitzer Prize website. I have not “cruised” the site so I do not have any direction to offer. But like any website, just start by seeing what’s in the menu and the home page and go from there. Enjoy! I’m sure there is more than enough on this site to keep one occupied for years to come.

      Small town girl? I was born and raised in a small town in Indiana. Where do you live?

      • Born In Santa Fe. Lived in Grants Pass,Or. Currently in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. ( there is a few other places too. As in coalstrip,Montana) yup a gypsy

  4. Reblogged… I’ve seen this photo before, but never read the story behind it. Heart wrenching… thank you for posting.

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