In 2005, Jim Sheeler wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the return of 24-year-old 2nd Lt. James J. Cathey from Iraq. Cathey's coffin was delivered to his pregnant wife by American Airlines, escorted by a Marine who was his friend since boot camp. Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News also won a Pulitzer for his photo series covering Cathey's homecoming and funeral. The photograph that sticks with us is the one of Katherine Cathey sleeping beside her husband's body one last time, as a Marine keeps watch the night before the funeral.
It is the one and only photo that makes me cry each time I see it. What brings the tears to my eyes is not just the bereaved young woman, but the Marine who stands behind her. In an earlier photo in the series, we see him building her a little nest of blankets on the air mattress. Sweet Lord, I cry just typing the words, the matter-of-fact tenderness is so overwhelming. So soldierly. But in this photo — the one that lives on and on online — he merely stands next to the coffin, watching over her. It is impossible to be unmoved by the juxtaposition of the eternal stone-faced warrior and the disheveled modern military wife-turned-widow, him rigid in his dress uniform, her on the floor in her blanket nest, wearing glasses and a baggy T-shirt, him nearly concealed by shadow while the pale blue light from the computer screen illuminates her like God’s own grace.