2006Feature Writing

Final Salute (8)

Jim Sheeler
November 9, 2005,
Part 8

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On the tarmac in Reno, the white glove reached into the limousine, but Katherine Cathey couldn't move.

"Katherine," Beck said, "it's time."

"I'm not ready for this," she said. "I'll never be ready."

Her mother leaned into the car and spoke to her daughter.

"Katherine," she said. "Jim would want you to see this."

Katherine looked at her mother, then at Beck, and took his hand. After climbing from the car, she steadied herself, her arm intertwined with Beck's. Then she looked toward the plane.

At the sight of the flag-draped casket, Katherine let loose a shrill, full-body wail that gave way to moans of distilled, contagious grief.

"NO! NO! Noooooo! Not him! Noooooo!"

She screamed as the casket moved slowly down the conveyor belt. She screamed until she nearly collapsed, clutching Beck around the neck, her legs almost giving way.

At the base of the luggage ramp, the screams hit the pallbearers.

Of all the Marines they had met or trained with, Jim Cathey was the one they considered invincible, built with steel-cable arms and endless endurance - a kid who had made sergeant at 19 and seemed destined to leapfrog through the ranks.

Most of the Marines who would serve as pallbearers had first met "Cat" at the University of Colorado, while enrolled in an elite scholarship program for enlisted infantrymen taking the difficult path to becoming officers. They partied with him, occasionally got into trouble with him, then watched him graduate with honors in anthropology and history in only three years.

When they lifted his casket, they struggled visibly with the weight, their eyes filling with tears as they shuffled to the white hearse.

After they placed the flag-drapped coffin inside, Katherine fell onto one corner, pressing her face into the blue field of stars.

Beck put a hand on her back as she held the casket tight. By then, he was close enough to her to know that she wouldn't let go. He kept his hand on her back until he found a solution.

"Would you like to ride with him?" he finally asked. She looked up, dazed, and replied with a sniffling nod. She took his hand again as he guided her to the front seat of the hearse, where the surprised funeral directors quickly moved papers to make room for her.

Jim Cathey's mother, father and sister took their own time with the casket, caressing the flag, remembering.

His mother, Caroline, thought of the baby who used to reach out to her from the crib. His father, Jeff, saw the boy he watched grow into a man on long hunting trips through the barren landscape nearby.

His sister, Joyce, saw the kid who became her protector. The day after she learned of his death, she had his face tattooed on the back of her neck, so "he will always be watching my back."

Last of all, the young Marine who had escorted his friend home walked up to the casket and came to attention.

Only a few months before, Gavin Conley had stood before his best friend at the formal commissioning ceremony in Boulder, where Cathey received his brass lieutenant's bars.

For Cathey, it was one of the most important days of his life, and Conley knew the best way to share his pride.

At the end of the ceremony, Conley walked up to the new lieutenant and snapped his arm to his brow, giving the new officer his first salute.

In front of the casket on the tarmac, Conley again brought his hand to his face, this time in one slow, sweeping movement. As the family wept, his hand fell to his side.

His job as escort was officially over.

Before climbing into the hearse with Katherine, Beck took one last look at the scene, fixing on the plane. By then, the passengers had moved on, leaving the Marines and the family alone with the casket - and everything that was about to follow.

Strangers at the door

Five days before Jim Cathey returned home, two uniformed men sat in a government SUV, several blocks from Katherine Cathey's home in Brighton, and bowed their heads.

Beck and Navy chaplain Jim Chapman closed their eyes in prayer as the chaplain asked for "words that will bring the family peace."

This time, Beck was dressed in a drab green uniform in accordance with a controversial new mandate from the top brass not to wear dress blue uniforms to notifications, based on concerns that the distinctive blues had become too associated with tragedy.

It was a warm, blue-sky Sunday afternoon. Nearby, a neighbor mowed his lawn.

When the knock came, Katherine Cathey was taking a nap. Her stepfather saw the Marines first and opened the door.

"We're here for Katherine," Beck said quietly.

"Oh, no," Vic Leonard said.

At first, Katherine's mother thought it was someone trying to sell something. Then she saw her husband walking backward and the two men in uniform.

"Oh, no," she said.

"She's pregnant!"

Leonard suggested to his wife that she wake up Katherine. Vicki Leonard shook her head. She couldn't speak.

When her stepfather opened the door to her bedroom, Katherine could hear her mother crying. She thought something had happened to someone in her mother's family. She had never heard her mother cry like that.

"What's going on?" Katherine asked her stepfather.

"It's not good," he told her. "Come with me."

Her own screams began as soon as she saw the uniforms.

Katherine ran to the back of the living room and collapsed on the floor, holding her stomach, thinking of the man who would never see their baby. Finally she stood, but still couldn't speak.

As Beck and the chaplain remained on their feet, she glared at them. She ran to the back of the house and drew a hot bath. For the next hour, she sat in the tub, dissolving.

Shortly after their arrival, Beck had ducked back outside to make a quick phone call.

Inside a government SUV in Reno, just around the corner from the home where Jim Cathey grew up, another phone rang.

'Tell me it's not my son'

The toolbox was a mess.

Jim Cathey's mother stood in the garage, trying to find the right wrench to fix a sprinkler head in her front yard.

What a frustrating morning, she thought.

As she prepared to leave for the hardware store, the family dog started to howl - a howl like she had never heard before. She put the dog in the house and drove off.

When the silver SUV pulled up, the Marines inside assumed someone was home. A lawn mower sat outside and it looked as if someone was doing yardwork.

No one answered the door.

A neighbor drove up, looked at them and pulled into an adjacent driveway. The Marines started to get nervous. The neighbor looked out a window at them. Their orders were to remain parked at the house until the parents returned.

When Caroline Cathey drove up, she saw the strange government vehicle, then fixed her eyes on the man in the driver's seat.

"She saw me; she pulled in," Capt. Winston Tierney said. "And I hate this, but I think she might have suspected when she saw me. She got out of her vehicle and I told my guys, 'Time to go.'"

Caroline Cathey's hands went to her face.

"As I made my way up the driveway, we didn't say anything," Tierney said. "I wanted to wait until I was there. She looked at me and it looked like she was going to collapse. I supported her and tried to give her a hug."

He recounted the conversation from there:

"Please don't let it be," she said.

"I'm sorry to have to be here today. Can we go inside and sit down? There are some things we need to confirm."

"Please tell me it's not Jimmy, please tell me it's not my son."

The Marines stayed with the Catheys for the next 10 hours. With Caroline's help, they contacted Jim Cathey's 9-year-old daughter, Casey, who was born while he was still in high school. Casey, along with Katherine, had pinned the lieutenant's bars on her father only a few months before.

Casey's mother and stepfather drove the little girl from Carson City, Nev., to Reno, where another one of the Marines - an operations chief who had children of his own - told her that her daddy had been hurt in the war and wouldn't be able to come back. He asked her if she understood. She answered with tears.

The Marines held fast until Jim Cathey's father, Jeff, returned from a trip he had taken to his son's favorite hunting grounds, where he was scouting for game birds.

When it was all over, the Marines climbed back into the silver SUV. A staff sergeant looked at Tierney.

"Sir," he said. "Please don't take me on another one of these."