IN MEMORIAL OF
PFC Chance Phelps, USMC, 19 years old, of Clifton, Colorado
The following is Marine Lieutenant Colonel Strobl's account of escorting the remains of PFC Chance Phelps. It's long and beautifully written, and deserves to be read in it's it's entirety. It's about Valor, Honor and Respect.
Phelps died from hostile fire in Al Anbar Province,
Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died.
Today, I miss him.
Over a year ago, I volunteered to escort the remains of
Marines killed in
Thankfully, I hadn't been called on to be an escort since
Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The first few weeks of April, however, had been
a tough month for the Marines. On the Monday after Easter I was reviewing
Department of Defense press releases when I saw that a Private First Class
Chance Phelps was killed in action outside of
I didn't hear back the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday
until 1800. The Battalion duty NCO called my cell phone and said I needed to be
ready to leave for
Before leaving for
With two other escorts from
I was wondering about Chance Phelps. I didn't know anything about him; not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I did pushups in my room until I couldn't do any more.
On Thursday morning I reported back to the mortuary. This
time there was a new group of Army escorts and a couple of the Marines who had
been there Wednesday. There was also an Air Force captain there to escort his
brother home to
We received a brief covering our duties, the proper handling of the remains, the procedures for draping a flag over a casket, and of course, the paperwork attendant to our task. We were shown pictures of the shipping container and told that each one contained, in addition to the casket, a flag. I was given an extra flag since Phelps's parents were divorced. This way they would each get one. I didn't like the idea of stuffing the flag into my luggage but I couldn't see carrying a large flag, folded for presentation to the next of kin, through an airport while in my Alpha uniform. It barely fit into my suitcase.
It turned out that I was the last escort to leave on Thursday. This meant that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies that mark all departures from the Dover AFB mortuary.
Most of the remains are taken from Dover AFB by hearse to
the airport in
On this day there were some civilian workers doing construction on the mortuary grounds. As each hearse passed, they would stop working and place their hard hats over their hearts. This was my first sign that my mission with PFC Phelps was larger than the Marine Corps and that his family and friends were not grieving alone.
Eventually I was the last escort remaining in the lounge. The Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison there came to see me. He had Chance Phelps's personal effects. He removed each item; a large watch, a wooden cross with a lanyard, two loose dog tags, two dog tags on a chain, and a Saint Christopher medal on a silver chain. Although we had been briefed that we might be carrying some personal effects of the deceased, this set me aback. Holding his personal effects, I was starting to get to know Chance Phelps.
Finally we were ready. I grabbed my bags and went outside. I was somewhat startled when I saw the shipping container, loaded three-quarters of the way in to the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been modified to carry such cargo. This was the first time I saw my "cargo" and I was surprised at how large the shipping container was. The Master Gunnery Sergeant and I verified that the name on the container was Phelps's then they pushed him the rest of the way in and we left. Now it was PFC Chance Phelps's turn to receive the military-and construction workers'-honors. He was finally moving towards home.
As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to
When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the
As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest employee started to ask me if I knew how to use the automated boarding pass dispenser. Before she could finish another ticketing agent interrupted her. He told me to go straight to the counter then explained to the woman that I was a military escort. She seemed embarrassed. The woman behind the counter already had tears in her eyes as I was pulling out my government travel voucher. She struggled to find words but managed to express her sympathy for the family and thank me for my service. She upgraded my ticket to first class.
After clearing security, I was met by another Northwest Airline employee at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would be up to take me down to the tarmac to observe the movement and loading of PFC Phelps. I hadn't really told any of them what my mission was but they all knew.
When the man from the cargo crew met me, he, too, struggled
for words. On the tarmac, he told me stories of his childhood as a military
brat and repeatedly told me that he was sorry for my loss. I was starting to
understand that, even here in
On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent except for occasional instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the conveyor moved Chance to the aircraft. I was relieved when he was finally settled into place. The rest of the bags were loaded and I watched them shut the cargo bay door before heading back up to board the aircraft.
One of the pilots had taken my carry-on bag himself and had it stored next to the cockpit door so he could watch it while I was on the tarmac. As I boarded the plane, I could tell immediately that the flight attendants had already been informed of my mission. They seemed a little choked up as they led me to my seat.
About 45 minutes into our flight I still hadn't spoken to anyone expect to tell the first class flight attendant that I would prefer water. I was surprised when the flight attendant from the back of the plane suddenly appeared and leaned down to grab my hands. She said, "I want you to have this" as she pushed a small gold crucifix, with a relief of Jesus, into my hand. It was her lapel pin and it looked somewhat worn. I suspected it had been hers for quite some time. That was the only thing she said to me the entire flight.
When we landed in
My trip with Chance was going to be somewhat unusual in that
we were going to have an overnight stopover. We had a late start out of
I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the
Once I was satisfied that all would be okay for the night, I asked one of the cargo crew if he would take me back to the terminal so that I could catch my hotel's shuttle. Instead, he drove me straight to the hotel himself. At the hotel, the Lieutenant Colonel called me and said he would personally pick me up in the morning and bring me back to the cargo area.
Before leaving the airport, I had told the cargo crew that I wanted to come back to the cargo area in the morning rather than go straight to the passenger terminal. I felt bad for leaving Chance overnight and wanted to see the shipping container where I had left it for the night. It was fine.
The Lieutenant Colonel made a few phone calls then drove me around to the passenger terminal. I was met again by a man from the cargo crew and escorted down to the tarmac. The pilot of the plane joined me as I waited for them to bring Chance from the cargo area. The pilot and I talked of his service in the Air Force and how he missed it.
I saluted as Chance was moved up the conveyor and onto the plane. It was to be a while before the luggage was to be loaded so the pilot took me up to the board the plane where I could watch the tarmac from a window. With no other passengers yet on board, I talked with the flight attendants and one of the cargo guys. He had been in the Navy and one of the attendants had been in the Air Force. Everywhere I went, people were continuing to tell me their relationship to the military. After all the baggage was aboard, I went back down to the tarmac, inspected the cargo bay, and watched them secure the door.
When we arrived at
We moved Chance to a secluded cargo area. Now it was time for me to remove the shipping container and drape the flag over the casket. I had predicted that this would choke me up but I found I was more concerned with proper flag etiquette than the solemnity of the moment. Once the flag was in place, I stood by and saluted as Chance was loaded onto the van from the funeral home. I was thankful that we were in a small airport and the event seemed to go mostly unnoticed. I picked up my rental car and followed Chance for five hours until we reached Riverton. During the long trip I imagined how my meeting with Chance's parents would go. I was very nervous about that.
When we finally arrived at the funeral home, I had my first
face-to-face meeting with the Casualty Assistance Call Officer. It had been his
duty to inform the family of Chance's death. He was on the Inspector/Instructor
staff of an infantry company in
Inside I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork
Earlier in the day I wasn't sure how I'd handle this moment.
Suddenly, the casket was open and I got my first look at Chance Phelps. His
uniform was immaculate-a tribute to the professionalism of the Marines at
The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse for the trip up to Dubois. This was the most difficult leg of our trip for me. I was bracing for the moment when I would meet his parents and hoping I would find the right words as I presented them with Chance's personal effects.
We got to the high school gym about four hours before the service was to begin. The gym floor was covered with folding chairs neatly lined in rows. There were a few townspeople making final preparations when I stood next to the hearse and saluted as Chance was moved out of the hearse. The sight of a flag-draped coffin was overwhelming to some of the ladies.
We moved Chance into the gym to the place of honor. A Marine sergeant, the command representative from Chance's battalion, met me at the gym. His eyes were watery as he relieved me of watching Chance so that I could go eat lunch and find my hotel.
At the restaurant, the table had a flier announcing Chance's
I drove back to the gym at a quarter after one. I could've walked-you could walk to just about anywhere in Dubois in ten minutes. I had planned to find a quiet room where I could take his things out of their pouch and untangle the chain of the Saint Christopher medal from the dog tag chains and arrange everything before his parents came in. I had twice before removed the items from the pouch to ensure they were all there-even though there was no chance anything could've fallen out. Each time, the two chains had been quite tangled. I didn't want to be fumbling around trying to untangle them in front of his parents. Our meeting, however, didn't go as expected.
I practically bumped into Chance's step-mom accidentally and our introductions began in the noisy hallway outside the gym. In short order I had met Chance's step-mom and father followed by his step-dad and, at last, his mom. I didn't know how to express to these people my sympathy for their loss and my gratitude for their sacrifice. Now, however, they were repeatedly thanking me for bringing their son home and for my service. I was humbled beyond words.
I told them that I had some of Chance's things and asked if we could try to find a quiet place. The five of us ended up in what appeared to be a computer lab-not what I had envisioned for this occasion.
After we had arranged five chairs around a small table, I
told them about our trip. I told them how, at every step, Chance was treated
with respect, dignity, and honor. I told them about the staff at
Finally, it was time to open the pouch. The first item I
happened to pull out was Chance's large watch. It was still set to
By 1400 most of the seats on the gym floor were filled and
people were finding seats in the fixed bleachers high above the gym floor.
There were a surprising number of people in military uniform. Many Marines had
come up from
It turned out the Chance's sister, a Petty Officer in the Navy, worked for a Rear Admiral-the Chief of Naval Intelligence-at the Pentagon. The Admiral had brought many of the sailors on his staff with him to Dubois pay respects to Chance and support his sister. After a few songs and some words from a Navy Chaplain, the Admiral took the microphone and told us how Chance had died.
Chance was an artillery cannoneer and his unit was acting as
provisional military police outside of
Then the commander of the local VFW post read some of the letters Chance had written home. In letters to his mom he talked of the mosquitoes and the heat. In letters to his stepfather he told of the dangers of convoy operations and of receiving fire.
The service was a fitting tribute to this hero. When it was over, we stood as the casket was wheeled out with the family following. The casket was placed onto a horse-drawn carriage for the mile-long trip from the gym, down the main street, then up the steep hill to the cemetery. I stood alone and saluted as the carriage departed the high school. I found my car and joined Chance's convoy.
The town seemingly went from the gym to the street. All along the route, the people had lined the street and were waving small American flags. The flags that were otherwise posted were all at half-staff. For the last quarter mile up the hill, local boy scouts, spaced about 20 feet apart, all in uniform, held large flags. At the foot of the hill, I could look up and back and see the enormity of our procession. I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles-probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming.
The carriage stopped about 15 yards from the grave and the military pall bearers and the family waited until the men of the VFW and Marine Corps league were formed up and schools busses had arrived carrying many of the people from the procession route. Once the entire crowd was in place, the pallbearers came to attention and began to remove the casket from the caisson. As I had done all week, I came to attention and executed a slow ceremonial salute as Chance was being transferred from one mode of transport to another.
Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving.
Although my mission had been officially complete once I
turned him over to the funeral director at the
The chaplain said some words that I couldn't hear and two
Marines removed the flag from the casket and slowly folded it for presentation
to his mother. When the ceremony was over, Chance's father placed a ribbon from
his service in
Finally, we all went back to the gym for a reception. There
was enough food to feed the entire population for a few days. In one corner of
the gym there was a table set up with lots of pictures of Chance and some of
his sports awards. People were continually approaching me and the other Marines
to thank us for our service. Almost all of them had some story to tell about
their connection to the military. About an hour into the reception, I had the
impression that every man in
It seemed like every time I saw Chance's mom she was hugging a different well wisher. As time passed, I began to hear people laughing. We were starting to heal.
After a few hours at the gym, I went back to the hotel to change out of my dress blues. The local VFW post had invited everyone over to "celebrate Chance's life." The Post was on the other end of town from my hotel and the drive took less than two minutes. The crowd was somewhat smaller than what had been at the gym but the Post was packed.
Marines were playing pool at the two tables near the
entrance and most of the VFW members were at the bar or around the tables in
the bar area. The largest room in the Post was a banquet/dinning/dancing area
and it was now called "The Chance Phelps Room." Above the entry were
two items: a large portrait of Chance in his dress blues and the Eagle, Globe,
& Anchor. In one corner of the room there was another memorial to Chance.
There were candles burning around another picture of him in his blues. On the
table surrounding his photo were his Purple Heart citation and his Purple Heart
medal. There was also a framed copy of an excerpt from the Congressional
Record. This was an elegant tribute to Chance Phelps delivered on the floor of
I did not buy a drink that night. As had been happening all day, indeed all week, people were thanking me for my service and for bringing Chance home. Now, in addition to words and handshakes, they were thanking me with beer. I fell in with the men who had handled the horses and horse-drawn carriage. I learned that they had worked through the night to groom and prepare the horses for Chance's last ride. They were all very grateful that they were able to contribute.
After a while we all gathered in the Chance Phelps room for
the formal dedication. The Post commander told us of how Chance had been so
looking forward to becoming a Life Member of the VFW. Now, in the Chance Phelps
Room of the Dubois,
Later, as I was walking toward the pool tables, a Staff
Sergeant form the Reserve unit in
As the Lance Corporal started to talk, an older man joined
our circle. He wore a baseball cap that indicated he had been with the 1st
Marine Division in
So, there I was, standing in a circle with three Marines
recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq and one
not so recently returned from fighting with the 1st Marine Division in Korea.
I, who had fought with the 1st Marine Division in
The young Lance Corporal began to tell us his story. At that moment, in this circle of current and former Marines, the differences in our ages and ranks dissipated-we were all simply Marines.
His squad had been on a patrol through a city street. They had taken small arms fire and had literally dodged an RPG round that sailed between two Marines. At one point they received fire from behind a wall and had neutralized the sniper with a SMAW round. The back blast of the SMAW, however, kicked up a substantial rock that hammered the Lance Corporal in the thigh; only missing his groin because he had reflexively turned his body sideways at the shot.
Their squad had suffered some wounded and was receiving more sniper fire when suddenly he was hit in the head by an AK-47 round. I was stunned as he told us how he felt like a baseball bat had been slammed into his head. He had spun around and fell unconscious. When he came to, he had a severe scalp wound but his Kevlar helmet had saved his life. He continued with his unit for a few days before realizing he was suffering the effects of a severe concussion.
As I stood there in the circle with the old man and the other Marines, the Staff Sergeant finished the story. He told of how this Lance Corporal had begged and pleaded with the Battalion surgeon to let him stay with his unit. In the end, the doctor said there was just no way-he had suffered a severe and traumatic head wound and would have to be med'evaced.
The Marine Corps is a special fraternity. There are moments when we are reminded of this. Interestingly, those moments don't always happen at awards ceremonies or in dress blues at Birthday Balls. I have found, rather, that they occur at unexpected times and places: next to a loaded moving van at Camp Lejeune's base housing, in a dirty CP tent in northern Saudi Arabia, and in a smoky VFW post in western Wyoming.
After the story was done, the Lance Corporal stepped over to the old man, put his arm over the man's shoulder and told him that he, the Korean War vet, was his hero. The two of them stood there with their arms over each other's shoulders and we were all silent for a moment. When they let go, I told the Lance Corporal that there were recruits down on the yellow footprints tonight that would soon be learning his story.
I was finished drinking beer and telling stories. I found Chance's father and shook his hand one more time. Chance's mom had already left and I deeply regretted not being able to tell her goodbye.
I left Dubois in the morning before sunrise for my long
drive back to
I miss him.
There are many such incidents, like the above, happening today. “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE”
And we are paying the price for it NOW, along with the many that have already made the ultimate sacrifice!