Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Think not of the ninety-and-nine

I first found Blackfive by reading the Mudville Gazette, now posting from Iraq. Blackfive has a number of essays posted which should be mandatory reading, but none more moving than the account of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Strobl, who escorted the remains of Chance Phelps, a Marine killed in battle in Iraq, home for burial.

Here is a little of it, but I strongly recommend reading it all at the link on Chance's name above.

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 her lapel.

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

While some in the media could barely disguise their glee at the one-thousandth American to die in Iraq, we must remember that each soldier who laid down his or her life was an individual, with a family, a personal life cut short on our behalf.

Throughout our history, the American soldier has fought valiantly and heroically, willing to sacrifice unhesitatingly, that our nation be a safe haven for Blessed Freedom. They were not mercenaries, or soldiers of fortune. They were farmers and shopkeepers and secretaries and construction workers and accountants and short-order cooks, who rose to the occasion. Their strength has ever been augmented by what they were fighting for. Their truth is marching on, as those caissons go rolling along.

Mourn for them as the individuals they were, and the lives they might have had but gave for us. Mourn Chance Phelps, and never let his sacrifice be soiled by forgetting why he so bravely offered it.


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