Private First Class Chance Phelps (1984-2004) died in Iraq at age 19 and was buried in Wyoming eight days later. His body was escorted by Lt Colonel Michael Strobl. This is their story.
You will see things in this very moving film (made for HBO) that you have probably never seen before. Since 1991 (up until April of 2009), any media coverage of the return of deceased soldiers was banned. No coffins being loaded onto air transports, and no unloading. Besides that, most of us are completely unfamiliar with the proceedings regarding the treatment of the combat dead, and this movie is the beginning of our education.
Aluminum transfer cases with bodies packed in ice leave Germany and arrive at Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. What transpires here will amaze you and I won’t disclose the details; their motto is “Dignity, Honor, and Respect.” Every service member who dies in a combat theater is transported by military aircraft to this mortuary for processing and burial preparation. When the body is ready, a military “escort” is assigned to bring that soldier to his or her final resting place.
A lifelong Marine and veteran of Desert Storm, Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) is conflicted about not serving in the current Iran war. He’s working in a cubicle, crunching numbers for the Marine Corps. In the one report to which we are privy, Strobl recommends that the number of replacements at a specific Iraqi site replace the casualty number and not be increased as requested; his superior overrules him in favor of the men on the ground. Strobl is stung by the implied criticism and his guilt worsens. Every night after his family is sleeping, he looks through the list of the names of those who have died that day, hoping he sees no one he knows. One night he sees someone from his hometown, whom he doesn’t know, and he decides to volunteer for escort duty.
The movie is as much about Strobl’s journey as it is his fallen comrade’s. But overall, the story is larger than the characters. At each stop in the trip from Delaware to Wyoming, Strobl is met with respect, acts of kindness, and impromptu tributes. They are directed at Strobl but are really for the unknown Phelps. It’s a unified, national grieving, and eight days of honoring the deceased. People who never knew him were thinking about him.
In Phelps’ hometown, Strobl meets with other veterans (one from the Korean “war” who gives him a dressing down for his guilt), turns over Phelps’ personal effects to his family, effects he has carefully guarded and repeatedly examined, and attends the funeral and burial.
“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.”
This is not a political movie but a story about the meticulous treatment each of the fallen receives, and about our national, collective mourning. Each casualty is not just a number, but a person with a name, with friends and family. Watching this transport of a KIA brings our wars much closer to home. Watch and weep.
Lt. Colonel Strobl’s escort report became the basis of the screenplay (that he co-wrote with director, Ross Katz), and you can read the original report everywhere online. The movie stays quite true other than adding an obnoxious airline screener, a night spent in an airport hangar, and an impromptu funeral procession.
“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.” I think we all do.
Of related interest:
Daily reports of the names of casualties: http://www.defense.gov/releases
A 2008 report of the nine-day journey home of Joe Montgomery, written by Chris Jones, from his burial moving backwards in time: http://www.esquire.com/features/things-that-carried-him