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[Media] A Marine's journey home

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Old May 3rd 04, 04:57 AM
Michael Wise
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Default [Media] A Marine's journey home

I came across this in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. Not
exactly related to aviation, but its a powerful story. It's too bad the
Chron doesn't have the photos online as well.

A Marine's journey home
Michael R. Strobl
Sunday, May 2, 2004
2004 San Francisco Chronicle


Chance Phelps was wearing his St. Christopher medal when he was
killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, on April 17, 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 Iraq should the need arise. The military provides a
uniformed escort for all casualties to ensure they are delivered
safely to the next of kin and are treated with dignity and respect
along the way.

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 Pfc. Chance Phelps, 19, was killed
in action outside of Baghdad. The press release listed his hometown
of Clifton, Colo., which is right next to Grand Junction, the town
I'm from. I notified our battalion adjutant and told him that,
should the duty to escort Pfc. Phelps fall to our battalion, I would
take him.

I didn't hear back the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday until
1800. The battalion duty NCO called me and said I needed to be ready
to leave for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware at 1900 to escort the
remains of Pfc. Phelps.

Before leaving for Dover, I called the major who had to inform
Chance's parents of his death. The major said the funeral was going
to be in Dubois, Wyo. (It turned out that Pfc. Phelps had lived in
Clifton for only his senior year of high school.) I had never been
to Wyoming and had never heard of Dubois.

With two other escorts from Quantico, I got to Dover AFB at 2330
Tuesday. Early Wednesday, we reported to the base mortuary. In the
escort lounge were about half a dozen Army soldiers, and about an
equal number of Marines were waiting to meet up with "their" remains
for departure. Pfc. Phelps was not ready, however, and I was told to
come back Thursday. Now, at Dover with nothing to do and a solemn
mission ahead, I began to get depressed.

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 were 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 San Diego.

We received a brief covering our duties, the proper handling of the
remains, the procedures for draping a flag over a casket and the
paperwork attendant to our task. We were shown pictures of the
shipping container and told that each one contained the casket and a
flag. I was given an extra flag because Pfc. Phelps' 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 Thursday. This
meant that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies
that mark all departures from the mortuary.

Most of the remains are taken by hearse from Dover to the airport in
Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the
remains of a service member are ready to leave the mortuary, an
announcement is made over the intercom system. With the
announcement, all service members working at the mortuary,
regardless of service branch, stop work and form up along the
driveway to render a slow ceremonial salute as the hearse departs.
Escorts also participate in each formation until it is their time to

On this day there were some civilians 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 in the lounge. The Marine master
gunnery sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison brought me Pfc.
Phelps' 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 St. 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
startled when I saw the shipping container loaded three-quarters of
the way into the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been
modified to carry such cargo. This was the first time I had seen it.
I was surprised at how large the shipping container was. The
sergeant and I verified that the name on the container was correct.
Then, they pushed it the rest of the way in, and we left. Now, it
was Pfc. Chance Phelps' turn to receive the military and
construction workers' honors. He was finally moving toward home.

As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to Philadelphia,
it became clear that he considered it an honor to be able to
contribute in getting Chance home. He offered his sympathy to the
family. I was glad to finally be moving yet apprehensive about what
things would be like at the airport. I didn't want this package to
be treated like ordinary cargo, yet I knew that the simple logistics
of moving a box this large would have to overrule my preferences.

When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the
Philadelphia airport, the cargo handler and hearse driver pulled the
shipping container onto a loading bay while I stood to the side and
executed a slow salute. Once Chance was safely in the cargo area,
and I was satisfied that he would be treated with due care and
respect, the driver took me to the passenger terminal.

As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest
employee started to ask me whether 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

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 Airlines
employee at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would
take me 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 Philadelphia, far
away from Chance's hometown, people were mourning with his family.

On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent expect for occasional
instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the
conveyor moved the container 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 I headed back to
board the aircraft.

One of the pilots had taken my carry-on bag himself and stored it
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

When we landed in Minneapolis, I was the first one off the plane.
The pilot escorted me down the side stairs of the exit tunnel to the
tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this plane.
They were unloading some of the luggage when an Army sergeant, a
fellow escort who had left Dover earlier that day, appeared next to me.

His "cargo" was going to be loaded onto my plane for its continuing
leg. We stood side-by-side in the dark and executed a slow salute as
Chance was removed from the plane. The cargo crew at Minneapolis
kept the shipping case separate from the other luggage as they
waited to take us to the cargo area. I waited with the soldier, and
we saluted together as his fallen comrade was loaded onto the plane.

My trip was going to be somewhat unusual because we were going to
have an overnight stopover. We had a late start out of Dover, and
there was just too much traveling ahead of us to continue on that
day. We still had a flight from Minneapolis to Billings, Mont., then
a five-hour drive to the funeral home, followed by a 90-minute drive
to Chance's hometown.)

I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the Minneapolis cargo
area, but my 10-minute ride from the tarmac to the cargo holding
area eased my apprehension. Just as in Philadelphia, the cargo guys
in Minneapolis were extremely respectful and seemed honored to do
their part.

Once I was satisfied that all would be OK for the night, I asked one
of the cargo crew if he would take me to the terminal so that I
could catch my hotel's shuttle. Instead, he drove me straight to the

Returning to the cargo area in the morning, I saluted as Chance was
moved up the conveyor and onto the plane.

When we arrived at Billings, I was again the first off the plane.
This time, Chance's shipping container was the first item out of the
cargo hold. The funeral director had driven five hours up from
Riverton, Wyo., to meet us. He shook my hand as if I had lost a

We moved the shipping container to a secluded cargo area so that I
could remove it 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 into
the funeral home van.

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 the
van to Riverton. During the five-hour trip, I imagined how my
meeting with the parents would go. I was nervous about it.

When we arrived at the funeral home, I had my first direct meeting
with the casualty assistance call officer who had informed the
family of Chance's death. He was on the inspector-instructor staff
of an infantry company in Salt Lake City, and I knew he had had a
difficult week.

I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork and discussed the
plan for the next day. The service was to be at 1400 in the high
school gymnasium in Dubois, population about 900, some 90 miles
away. The casualty assistance call officer had some items that the
family wanted to go into the casket. I felt I needed to inspect
Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper even though it was
going to be a closed casket funeral.

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 Dover. I noticed that he wore six
ribbons over his marksmanship badge. The senior one was his Purple

I had been in the Corps for more than 17 years, including a combat
tour in Kuwait, and was wearing eight ribbons. This private first
class, with less than a year in the Corps, had already earned six.

The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse 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 floor was covered with folding chairs neatly lined
in rows. A few townspeople were making final preparations when I
stood next to the hearse and saluted as the casket was unloaded. The
sight of a flag-draped coffin was overwhelming to some of the women.
We moved the casket 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 eat lunch and find my hotel.

At the restaurant, the table had a flyer announcing the service.
Dubois High School gym: 2 o'clock. It also said that the family
would be accepting donations so that they could buy flak vests to
send to troops in Iraq.

I drove back to the gym at 1:15 p.m. I could've walked -- you could
walk to just about anywhere in Dubois in 10 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 St. 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 stepmother accidentally, and our
introductions began in the noisy hallway outside the gym. I soon met
his father, followed by his stepfather and his mother.

I didn't know how to express 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 his things and asked if we could 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
Dover and all the folks at Northwest Airlines. I tried to convey how
the entire nation -- from Dover to Philadelphia to Minneapolis to
Billings and Riverton -- expressed grief and sympathy over their loss.

Finally, it was time to open the pouch. The first item I happened to
pull out was Chance's large watch still set to Baghdad time. Next
were the lanyard and the wooden cross. Then the dog tags and the St.
Christopher medal. This time the chains were not tangled.

Once all of his items were laid out on the table, I told his mom
that I had one other item to give them. I retrieved the flight
attendant's crucifix from my pocket and told its story. I set that
on the table and excused myself. When I next saw Chance's mom, she
was wearing the crucifix on her lapel.

By 2 p.m. most of the seats on the gym floor were filled, and people
were finding seats in the bleachers. There were a surprising number
of people in military uniform. Many Marines had come up from Salt
Lake City. Men from various VFW posts and the Marine Corps League
occupied multiple rows of folding chairs. We all stood as the family
took their seats in the front.

It turned out 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 to 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.

He was an artillery cannoneer, and his unit was acting as
provisional military police outside Baghdad. Chance had volunteered
to man a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of the leading
vehicle in a convoy. The convoy came under intense fire, but Chance
returned fire with the big gun, covering the rest of the convoy,
until he was fatally wounded.

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 left. I found my
car and joined Chance's convoy.

The town seemingly went from the gym to the street. All along the
route, people lined the street and waved 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 the
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, Wyo.

The carriage stopped about 15 yards from the grave, and the military
pallbearers and the family waited until the men of the VFW and
Marine Corps League were formed up and school buses 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 transferred from one mode of transport to another.

From Dover to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Minneapolis, Minneapolis
to Billings, Billings to Riverton, and Riverton to Dubois we had
been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards,
I was choking up. I felt that as long as he was still moving, he was
somehow still alive. 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 Billings airport, it was his
placement at his grave that really concluded it in my mind. Now he
was home to stay, and I suddenly felt sad, relieved and useless.

The chaplain said some words I couldn't hear, and two Marines
removed the flag from the casket and folded it for presentation to
his mother. When the ceremony was over, Chance's father placed a
ribbon from his service in Vietnam on the casket. His mother took
something from her blouse and put it on the casket. I later saw that
it was the flight attendant's crucifix. Eventually Chance's friends
moved closer to the grave. A young man put a can of Copenhagen on
the casket, and many others left flowers.

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 was a table 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 Wyoming had been in the service at one time or another.

It seemed as if 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 to the hotel to change out of
my dress blues. The local VFW post had invited everyone over to
celebrate Chance's life. The crowd was somewhat smaller than 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 in the bar area. The largest room was a
banquet-dining- dancing area renamed the Chance Phelps Room. Above
the entry were two items: a large portrait of Chance in his dress
blues and the eagle, globe and anchor. In one corner of the room was
another memorial with candles burning around another picture of him
in his blues. Also on the table were his Purple Heart citation, his
Purple Heart medal and a framed excerpt from the Congressional
Record -- a tribute delivered on the floor of the House of
Representatives by Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo. Above it all was a
television playing a photo montage of Chance's life from small boy
to proud Marine.

I left Dubois before sunrise for my long drive back to Billings. It
had been my honor to take Chance Phelps to his final post. Now, he
was on the high ground overlooking his town.

I miss him.

/Michael R. Strobl is a lieutenant colonel with the Marine Corps in
Quantico, Va. This article is being published with the cooperation
of John Phelps, the father of Chance Phelps. His Web site is
johnphelps.com. A longer version of this piece will appear in the
July issue of Marine Corps Gazette./

2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Page E - 1

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