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Visions of the Decade: Todd Heisler’s “Final Salute” (7 Photos)

Visions of the Decade: Todd Heisler's "Final Salute" (7 Photos)

TFH1978CATHEYAll photos © Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

Todd Heisler’s “Final Salute” was named by PDNOnline readers one of the most influential photo essays of the past ten years in a survey conducted for PDN’s Visions of the Decade issue. While a staff photographer at the Rocky Mountain News, Heisler (now at The New York Times) spent a year documenting the work of Major Steve Beck and the Marine Honor Guard who handle family notifications and the funerals of Marines killed during the Iraq War. At a time when the Pentagon barred photographers from covering the return of military caskets to Dover Air Force Base, Heisler’s “Final Salute” provided a rare and intimate look at the dignity of military funeral rites.


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

“Final Salute” earned Heisler the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography, and was honored by NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism, Pictures of the Year International, World Press Photo and other prizes.


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

Captain Chris Sutherland, left, Sergeant Major Jeff Study, Staff Sergeant Clifford Grimes and Gunnery Sergeant Todd Martin prepare to deliver posthumous medals to the families of fallen Marines.


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

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.”


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

The day before the funeral of their friend, 2nd Lt. Jon Mueller, left and 1st Lt. Matthew Baumann practiced for hours folding a flag, making sure there would be no errors the next day. “That will be the last time his flag is folded, ” Said Maj. Steve Beck, as he instructed them. “It has to be perfect.”


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

Jo Burns clings to Corporal Dustin Barker, 22, during the “Remembering the Brave” ceremony honoring the actions of fallen Marines. Corporal Barker was with Jo Burns’ son, Lance Corporal Kyle Burns, when he was killed in action in Fallujah on November 11, 2004.


© Todd Heisler/Rocky Mountain News. All rights reserved.

Inside the mortuary, Katherine Cathey draped herself over her husband’s casket before putting personal items in it. Flowers from their wedding, a bottle of Jim’s favorite perfume and an ultrasound of their son were some of the things Katherine placed next to 2nd Lt. James Cathey’s remains.

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  1. Oh. My. Gosh. This is what photojournalism is all about. I feel these photos in my gut – they make me want to go out and change the world; make it a better place for our kids.

  2. These pictures are wonderful in such are a heartfelt way. Life’s hardship is really unfortunate, and it’s such a shame these that these soldiers and their families had to pay this price. The emotion in every one of these shots is overwhelming. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I don’t have words that paint the emotions these pictures do. Captured the essence of true journalism without the sensationalism. Displayed the emotions of the moment without invading the privacy. Thank you for sharing.

  4. There, but for the grace of God, lies me… I was hit in the chest in action and survived.
    My heart goes out to the families of every serving soldier in action today. But special credit to the family who allowed the publication of these photos. Beautiful, touching, poignant, but such a privilege to be able to be part of…x

  5. I do not have the words to describe how much these photos impact me. I’ve never felt such devotion to people I’ve never known before. You did an incredible job of capturing the emotions and the vulnerability of the families, while being completely respectful and honorable in how you did it. Thank you.

  6. I have read the book Final Salute that includes these pictures as well as the stories of a number of Marines. Read it. It will break your heart and make you proud at the same time. We are surrounded by greatness.

  7. No words can discribe the pain of the dear ones like these pictures.Hope our world will learn from their sorrows one day.

  8. I cry every time I see these pictures and others that circulate on our email. I salute the men and women that protect me and my family – I love you guys!!!!!!

  9. just my opinion, but the one with the people looking out of the plane looks 100% false and doctored/photoshopped. i mean,just look at the people..and aren’t they facing backwards?
    just looks so fake to me…

    the one with the ‘wife’ sleeping next to her husband looks suspicious, who’s going to let a camera man in to film tender moments like that…??

    c’mon now.

  10. Gino, the photos are real & you are an ass. The photo essay won a Pulitizer, they were publishe in the now shut RMN, & they were in a book where the stories support the shots. Be a prick if you like, but be an smart one. These are “Life” shots, you Jerk.

  11. I mean no disrespect to the families, or the prize winning photographer, but I have to agree with Gino. Somehow,those people in the windows just don’t look real. The lighting is just not what you would expect of an airplane window. You generally can’t see into them with such clarity. And what type of plane is so bright inside that you could see the faces SO clearly?? It makes a moving scene, to be sure, but the first thing I thought when I saw the photo was that the window faces seemed “pasted in.” I want be wrong,and hope that I am. Snopes turned up nothing.

  12. I agree with Gino and CJ, while a powerful moving moment, it does look photoshopped. I believe it was added for contrast to evoke as emotional response.

  13. with reference to the first photo…depicting this brave soldier’s casket being loaded
    onto an airliner… this photo has obviously been heavily photo-shopped, and as such
    i don’t think it’s worthy of a ‘photojournalism’ award. it does not depict the scene as
    it could have happened…the action in the photo, and the caption refer to the people

  14. The picture of the casket being loaded into a plane is obviously photoshopped. This reminds me of the photoshopped pics from Iraq. Just too phony to be believed. Just what are the “people on the plane” looking at? The cargo door is all the way up and there nothing else going on that can be seen. This smacks of someone making a great deal of money on the grief of others.

  15. Whethere this photo is photoshopped or not it is impossible to really know but I disagree with the reasons posted as to why people think it is. Take a closer look… all of the seats do not line up. From left to right windows 2,5 and 8 look like they line up with seats while none of the others do. In those other 5 seats people appear to be leaning forward if they wish to see out the window. The man in first window appears to be completely out of his seat to get a good view. A far as the lightng. if you have ever flown at night you would know that while the plane is in the air the aisle lights are generally turned off and it is fairly dark inside the cabin. But while the plane is on the ground, like this one obviously is, the aisle lights are turned on and they are VERY bright. And finally the person who says that they should not have anything to look at through the window has no idea what is really going on outside the plane. But i can imagine plenty of things going on to look out the window at. Such as television crews, family members, color guard, waiting hearse and obviously photographers. Question the photo if you wish but come up with some better reasons.

  16. It is laughable to me how some people try to act like they know so much. I agree with Jeremy. First of all when photos are selected for awards they are reviewed thoroughly by people to make sure they are not in fact photoshopped. And he was exactly right in saying that people would be wondering what was going on outside the plane and wanting to look outside. There would be media and all kinds of stuff going on. And about the seats lining up?? Whoever posted that, you are just an idiot. I work on commercial airplanes and there is nothing funny about the windows or the seats.

  17. The following is a copy of a comment I just left on Life’s “the Photos we’ll remember 2000-2010 regarding this pic & the comment about it being an obvious fake. Please note that I am no photo expert. But I would challenge those who claim it is fake to do some more investigating before making such disrespectful comments.
    “Regarding Badcomrades comment questioning the authenticity of the photo of the fallen Marine on the plane. Being a former Marine myself, I take great offense when someone questions something of this nature. However, I served to protect the freedoms of those individuals, & I am not against checking out the facts. Altho I do not possess this amazing software Mr Badcomrade purports to “expose” the fake with, all he needed to do is go to the following website, which I just did a random google on using the photographer’s name.
    This is the photo that is following the alleged fake. If you look in the background, you will see the “fake” plane, with the “fake” windows all well-lit up by, I must presume, “fake” lighting of course. Please excuse my sarcasm. However, one look at that photo confirms to me, w/or w/o any super-duper hi-tech software, except for the one that God created which sits between my ears, the ones us normal people call a “brain.,” that the photo titled “Taps” is indeed genuine. And I am not sure what this person meant by the windows not being lined up. Seeing as the photo was taken at night, & the surface of the plane is curved, not flat, & depending on the angle of the camera as opposed to the plane, are all going to play into the appearance of the windows, not to mention outside lighting, shadows, etc.
    Maybe what you should do, sir (or ma’am…I don’t want to assume here), is try contacting the passengers on that plane, or maybe the widow of the fallen Marine, & ask them if it was a fake, ask them if they were faked onto the plane.
    This scene reminds me of “Taking Chance Home.” I could not help but weep thru most of the movie. The brotherhood of the United States Marine Corps can & will outlast any cynical viewer whose lack of tack & abundance of self-loathing in a vain attempt to cheapen the deaths of my fallen brothers call only be summed up by Buzz Lightyear’s comment to Woody in Toy Story: “You are a sad, strange little man [oops-or woman], and you have my pity. ” To Mrs. Katherine Cathey, my sincere condolences. Thank you for sharing your husband with us. To my fallen brother, 2nd Lt James Cathey, sleep well, sir, until the Lord’s return. I salute you. To those Marines who took part in the escort duty at some point, Semper Fi! To those “fake” passengers onboard that plane, I pray that you do not forget the sacrifice of that fallen young man who laid beneath your cabin. I would venture to say even as he lay there, if the Lord had granted it, he would have had his rifle there with him, watching over you as you flew to your appointed destinations.
    Respectfully yours, Doug Jacobson, Cpl, USMC 1972-76. ”

    FYI, I tried to do a google search on this photo to see about it being fake. The only place I am finding any remarks about it being a fake is from folks like these making such comments. It is not from the world of professional photography. Like the person I addressed in Life regarding the windows, if you look at the people closely you can see they are not evenly seated, nor is there someone in each window. But choose to believe what you wish. After all,
    “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” (Stuart Chase)
    You all have a great day, a great New year. To any other Marines reading this, Semper Fi. OohRah! God bless you.

  18. Just a quick comment agreeing with you Doug… I’m in the service as well…if one would use something called common sense and google 2LT James Cathey, they would be led to any number of sites including one from the Times showcasing this photograph as well as others. Not too sure that they issues being legit..maybe more people should open their eyes instead of their mouths…if you’re not in the service or don’t understand the families of the service members, maybe you shouldn’t voice shouldn’t voice so much of a know-it-all opinion…

  19. And NOTE PLEASE steve from florida…all the people are staring out the window because there is a military reception for a deceased soldier out on the tarmac, there is a mourning family and a distraught pregnant wife (unless of course you think that is photoshopped too)…that is a pretty big deal…have you been a part of one? They tend to be noticed.

  20. It’s a pity that software like photoshop were even invented because we ‘ll never know real from fake again. Damm technology, but they can’t even cure cancer!
    Sincere condolences though to all the families of men who have lost their lives in war. Here in South Africa we had a Border War for about 25 years, and it affected people from all walks of life in South Africa, and so many young guys lost their lives in Angola after being conscripted into the Army for two years. And for what? Namibia gained it’s independence anyway.

  21. Ok for the people that want to say it is fake because how the people are seated or the lighting or anything else for that matter. This is an old story it has been published for years and it is real, true, and moving. You should try reading the story before making comments. Here is the link so you can read the award winning piece. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2005/nov/11/final-salute/. It is absolutely an amazing and sad story. Two for the plan picture people that think it is fake. It isn’t I am a aircraft mechanic for 15 years and I can tell you that is a real picture of that particular aircraft from that particular air carrier. So please stop making fools out of yourself. The actual photographer and writer had no clue that they would find themselves with an award winning piece when they started follow the Major that notified families of their loved ones death in war to tell his story. It just so happened that one particular women he notified during their journey of fallowing this man was one that was heart wrenching. Due to this woman’s love for her husband and the unborn child she was with at the time of notification and burial. A lot of people don’t realize these pictures of two separate families and soldiers as part of the whole story of this mans duties. Although the one that hits home and what a lot of people don’t realize when viewing the picture of the women in the bed in front of the casket of her husband is that she is six months pregnant. Now to get back on track. Don’t we all wished we were only loved so deeply that our last moments are so cherished.

  22. The photo of the people looking out of the plane has obviously been doctored. There is no way the people in the plane would have “larger faces” than the military personnel taking the casket out. This is photojournalism at it’s WORST…trying to create a reaction when the photo is obviously fake. Take a closer look at the background behind the people looking out of the window. They all have different looks, and the image of the lady in red is larger than the others….i know she’s a bigger woman, but the image should be the same size. Nice try….got a interesting reaction from everyone…why don’t we just end this stupid war so no one has to come back on a plane in a casket and photo journalist don’t have to create shots to gain empathy from our citizens that we actually care about these fallen soldiers who have risked their lives for no justifiable reason!

  23. Mark, there is a very simple way that the people in the plane would have larger faces. They’re closer to the camera, right up against the windows, while the military personell are farther away, in the body of the plane. They’re also framed very differently.

    These are real images. The reason they look so arresting is because they were taken by a skilled professional photographer. Todd Heisler has been shooting forever, has won multiple Pulitzers, and has had an illustrious career at the Rocky Mountain News and New York Times. He’s never been accused of fabricating anything. Take five minutes to do a little research before cynically slandering someone.

  24. It could be my son in the coffin or my daughter preparing to bury her husband. Very powerful, very emotionally gut wrenching journalism. I don’t know how it hit me, but I closed my office doors and cried for good 20 minutes. Im canceling the memorial day party, will go help at the local homeless shelter instead. Thank you.

  25. Who gives a shit if it’s photoshopped or not? This is about HONOR and lives lost, and some boneheads are arguing about whether or not it’s a fake picture or not?! Obviously you have never served your country or lost family members that were protecting your country and your liberties so you can sit around and argue trivial bullshit on the computer. REALITY CHECK! It’s MEMORIAL DAY! THANK A SERVICE MEMBER AND/OR VETERAN FOR THEIR SERVICE TO THIS COUNTRY. THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS YOU’RE AMERICAN LIVING IN THE LAND OF THE FREE! THIS IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH!

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