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 leave.
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 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 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 flight.
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 hotel.
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 brother.
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 Heart.
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.