(Military Escort of a Marine)
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 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 Private First
Class Chance Phelps was killed in action outside of Baghdad. The press
release listed his hometown-the same 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 my cell phone and said I needed to be
ready to leave for Dover Air Force Base at 1900 in order to escort the
remains of PFC Phelps.
Before leaving for Dover I called the major who had the task of
informing Phelps's parents of his death. The major said the funeral was
going to be in Dubois, Wyoming. (It turned out that PFC Phelps only
lived in my hometown for 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 on
Tuesday night. First thing on Wednesday we reported to the mortuary at
the base. In the escort lounge there were about half a dozen Army
soldiers and about an equal number of Marines waiting to meet up with
"their" remains for departure. PFC Phelps was not ready,
however, and I was told to come back on 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
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 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 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
Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the
remains of a service member are loaded onto a hearse and ready to leave
the Dover mortuary, there is an announcement made over the building's
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
participated in each formation until it was their time to leave.
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
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 around 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
Once Chance was safely in the cargo area, and I was satisfied that he
would be treated with due care and respect, the hearse driver drove me
over to the passenger terminal and dropped me off.
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
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 Philadelphia, far away from Chance's
hometown, people were mourning with his family.
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
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 except
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 himself escorted me straight down the side stairs of the exit
tunnel to the tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this
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
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 Phelps's
shipping case separate from all 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 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 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, Montana, then
a five-hour drive to the funeral home. That was to be followed by a
90-minute drive to Chance's hometown.)
I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the Minneapolis cargo
My ten-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. While
talking with them, I learned that the cargo supervisor for Northwest
Airlines at the Minneapolis airport is a Lieutenant Colonel in the
Marine Corps Reserves.
They called him for me and let me talk to him.
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
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 Billings, I was again the first off the plane. This
time Chance's shipping container was the first item out of the cargo
The funeral director had driven five hours up from Riverton, Wyoming to
meet us. He shook my hand as if I had personally lost a brother.
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 Salt Lake City,
Utah and I knew he had had a difficult week.
Inside I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork from Dover and
discussed the plan for the next day. The service was to be at 1400 in
the high school gymnasium up in Dubois, population about 900, some 90
miles away. Eventually, we had covered everything. The CACO had some
items that the family wanted to be inserted into the casket and I felt I
needed to inspect Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper.
Although it was going to be a closed casket funeral, I still wanted to
ensure his uniform was squared away.
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
over 17 years, including a combat tour, 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 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
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
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 service.
Dubois High School gym; two 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 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 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. It was still set to Baghdad time.
Next were the lanyard and the wooden cross. Then the dog tags and the
Saint 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
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 Salt Lake City. Men from various VFW posts and the Marine
Corps League occupied multiple rows of folding chairs. We all stood as
Chance's family took their seats in the front.
It turned out that 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 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 stayed true to his post
and 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 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
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 school 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.
From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis; Minneapolis to
Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois we had been
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 at once sad, relieved, and useless.
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 Vietnam on Chance's casket. His mother
approached the casket and took something from her blouse and put it on
the casket. I later saw that it was the flight attendant's crucifix.
Eventually friends of Chance's moved closer to the grave. A young man
put a can of Coppenhagen 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 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 Wyoming had, at one
time or another, been in the service.
. 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
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 the United States House of
Representatives by Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado.
Above it all was a television that was playing a photo montage of
Chance's life from small boy to proud Marine.
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, Wyoming post, he would be an eternal member. We all
raised our beers and the Chance Phelps room was christened.
Later, as I was walking toward the pool tables, a Staff Sergeant from
the Reserve unit in Salt Lake grabbed me and said, "Sir, you gotta
There were two other Marines with him and he told the younger one, a
Lance Corporal, to tell me his story. The Staff Sergeant said the Lance
Corporal was normally too shy and modest to tell it but now he'd had
enough beer to overcome his usual tendencies.
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 Korea. Earlier in the evening he had told me about one of
his former commanding officers; a Colonel Puller.
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 Kuwait, was
about to gain a new insight into our Corps.
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
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
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.
Submitted by Jerry M.
A Special Thanks to Jerry - Head Stranger
Also, a special thanks to those who provided the 'difference' between a
"Soldier" and a "Marine." Thanks Jerry W.