Author Kathleen Rodgers' first novel, The Final Salute, is the moving story of an Air Force family dealing with the peculiar realities of their lives. On the one hand, the Westerfields are just like everyone else - they fight with their neighbors, deal with rebellious step children, resent their intrusive parents, gossip on Saturday and go to church on Sunday, bump heads at the office, keep secrets, tell tales - and generally embrace all the joys and irritations that make us human. On the other hand, Tuck Westerfield is a fighter pilot. When he goes to work each morning, there's a big chance he might not come home for dinner. Does the stress of that knowledge heighten each touch, each argument, each achievement - and each failure? Or does the shadow of mortality taint what should be sweet?
With a careful pen, Rodgers introduces the Westerfields and their large extended dysfunctional Air Force family in the months building up to the first Gulf War so that when Tuck is deployed shortly after deciding to retire, the reader feels the excitement of the times as well as the dread. The men are going on a great adventure - they are making a difference. They are serving their country - doing what they were trained to do. The flurry of letters going back and forth between the families left behind and the warriors at work over the skies of Iraq burble with the mundane activities of home. However, the cool veneer of normality covers sizzling emotions like love and fear. Will Wheaties get to see his newborn son? Who will come home a hero? Who is a coward? Will Tuck survive to retire?
When it's all over and the families are reunited, Tuck sticks with his decision to move on. So many of his friends have died in crashes -the possibility of advancement doesn't seem worth the risks anymore. As the Westerfields settle into a new life, the military subculture they leave behind marches inexorably onward - as it always has. Then, another young pilot dies. Tuck returns from American Airlines - and in a heartbreaking final salute to the many friends who didn't make it home at the end of their workday, gives the eulogy.
Rodgers' portrait is loving and frank at the same time. Military life is filled with both risks and rewards - and she makes that clear. However, this is a deep book - not a flattering Top Gun biopic. It presents real people under trying circumstances. She turns clichés upside down - the big-haired, over-blown lady living next door turns out to be a kind-hearted, animal loving, smart business-woman. The sullen Goth-girl turns out to be a sweet-natured, eager-to-please big sister to her young step-brothers. The status climbing wives' social clubs turn out to be supportive and caring networks that hold everyone together during trying times. Sparkling grandmas encourage big dreams, fearful mothers fight losing battles to protect sons from dangerous endeavors. The big and the strong sometimes don't live up to their shiny images, those who struggle to serve two taskmasters sometimes fail and sometimes win -- and sometimes defy the odds.
Readable, intimate, tender - highly recommended.
~ Joyce Faulkner, President of Military Writers Society of America and award-winning author of In the Shadow of Suribachi, For Shrieking Out Loud, and Losing Patience. Co-author of The Sunchon Tunnel Massacre Survivors.