Taking Chance - Part 2

Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl, author of Taking Chance is Lt. Col. Michael Strobl's account of escorting Marine PFC Chance Phelps home to his family and final resting place in 2004. The story was made into a documentary starring actor Kevin Bacon as Strobl.

After Lt. Col. Strobl filed his trip report, with the details of his escort duty, he received e-mail from Brigadier General John Kelly, who was with Chance the day he died. BGEN Kelly filled in the details of what happened that Good Friday in Iraq, when Chance Phelps, three months shy of his twentieth birthday, gave his life in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004 5:38 AM


I just read your trip report forwarded to me by CO, 11th Marines, and having done the kind of duty you report about I know the emotions and pride. I was with the Marine you escorted, nearly right next to him, when he was killed instantly along side a road named ASR San Juan. The closest village is Jurf as Sakhr, and it sits right on the Euphrates River with Fallujah 25kms to the N, and Baghdad perhaps 45 to the NNE.

This is an ugly little section of Iraq and full of extremists that hate us for some reason. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. We were in five vehicles and were caught in a complex ambush. They initiated it with an IED that caught the lead vehicle, disabled it, and wounded two of the three Marines inside. After the IED there was immediate massed MG, AK, RPG, and mortar fire that certainly defined for me the term "withering."

The second vehicle was also caught in the kill zone, but they it did a 180 and out – two WIA aboard from the initial volley. The third vehicle was outside the KZ, but seeing #1 disabled and the Marines in extremis drove in, dismounted, set up a base fire, and started to work the comms. The other vehicles dismounted outside the KZ and began to seek the flank of the ambush. Your Marine’s vehicle was called forward to try and close the back door and prevent the guerrillas escape so we could kill them, and after accomplishing the maneuver and putting his gun in action, he was hit. Over time we shot our way out of it. We collected up wounded, dead, and all equipment from the destroyed HMMWV, then walked out of the KZ shooting the entire time until we were clear. All the Marines in the patrol did what we trained them to do, did it instinctively, and as if they were born to it. Every one of them returned fire, moved to the sound of the guns, and took action. There was certainly nothing special about any of them, by the way, other than they were MARINES.

Your charge started this return home with the same kind of reverence and honor you describe in your trip report, only in a very, very different way. When we rushed into the combat base in Mahmudiyah it wasn’t for him, we knew he was already with God, but for the WIAs we had aboard. The entire camp knew he was with us, however, and they all stood tall and were proud to simply be in the same shit hole with him and doing what they joined to do.

The Navy Docs went right to it with the WIAs and saved lives, at the same time we removed him from the vehicle, its turret having been immediately manned by another Marine who'd himself been hit in the face, but pressed with the mission and the gun never went quiet in the process. The dead Marine, only just out of high school last May, was of course filthy dirty and his uniform vastly different than the one you saw him in. He obviously was not wearing any ribbons, but did have his flak and all the other accoutrements of a field Marine on when we removed him. He was also still soaked from the unbelievable sweating a fight brings on. His buddies spent a few quiet moments and we talked about the loss, and what he meant – what he was like – to them all.

Everyone offered a vignette, most were silly or funny, but that's the kind of guy he was. We then withdrew as there was a detailed critique to conduct (actions on contact, who did what, what worked, what didn’t work, what could have done better, and all the what ifs that go with learning the trade and getting better), and then the platoon commander (himself quite a guy) got right to it as there were also weapons to clean, and preps to be made for the next patrol. Life goes on doesn’t it. This all took place, by the way, at about 1500 local on Good Friday. Thought you should know the rest of the story. Thanks for taking care of our Marine.

Semper Fidelis,

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