For the past year, Maj. Steve Beck has had an unenviable job.
The marine was assigned to “casualty notification” duty. Instead of being overseas fighting off terrorists, Beck has found himself stuck in Denver fighting off tears.
In the past 12 months, he has seen inside the caskets, learned each Marine’s name and nickname, touched the toys they grew up with and read the letters they wrote home. He has held grieving mothers in long embraces, absorbing their muffled cries into the dark blue shoulder of his uniform.
Sometimes he’s gone home to his own family and found himself crying in the dark.
When he first donned the Marine uniform, Beck had never heard the term “casualty assistance calls officer.” He certainly never expected to serve as one.
As it turned out, it would become the most important mission of his life.
Beck’s story, “Final Salute,” written by Jim Sheeler and photographed by Todd Heisler, first appeared in the print edition of the Rocky Mountain News. Even though the special report appeared powerful in print, it quickly became apparent this was a feature that would become more uplifting once it was uploaded on the newspaper’s Web site.
This notion occurred to John Temple, editor, president and publisher of the Denver-based periodical, when the images that would accompany the piece were first seen in succession.
“So many of the pictures worked in sequence, much like a film,” said Temple. “When we looked at them projected on a screen in a darkened room, the reporter read quotes from the people we were watching. Nobody could get through one of those sessions without shedding a tear. Somehow, I knew, we had to recreate the experience online, and that’s what we tried to do.”
And that’s what the paper did, creating a touching slide show of the photos that matched the solemn sound of Beck speaking.
While the printed paper copy of the story inevitably went out of circulation, the more-comprehensive online version continued to reach new readers long after its initial publication.
“One of the great benefits of the Web is that a story has a much longer shelf life than in print,” Temple said. “More than a month after it was published in the newspaper on Veteran’s Day, ‘Final Salute’ was the No. 1 story on our Web site.
“Readers across the globe are sharing it with their friends and families, and they’re letting us know how much they appreciate it. In my years as an editor, I’ve never experienced the outpouring and gratitude we’ve received for ‘Final Salute.’ It is a testament that a local news organization can become a player on the world scene if it produces the right content.”