Lieutenant Colonel Mike Strobl began his 2004 essay “Taking Chance” by saying, “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.”
HBO turned Strobl’s essay into an emotional film about the journey of Chance’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to his home in Dubois, Wyoming. Taking Chance is excellent at depicting the dignity, honor, and respect involved with the preparation and transport of an individual in the military who have been killed in action. Every military KIA is given a military escort that accompanies the remains of the deceased to their final resting place.
In the film Lt. Col. Strobl is played by actor Kevin Bacon. Bacon does a tremendous job playing a U.S. Marine officer who exudes leadership and professionalism. Normally senior officers don’t serve as escorts, but for reasons explained in the film Lt. Col Strobl volunteers to serve as the escort for the all too young 19 year old Private First Class Chance Phelps, who was later promoted to Lance Corporal posthumously.
One of the real moving parts of the film has to do with Strobl’s encounters with the civilians he meets along the way as he accompanies the fallen Marine whose remains travel in the cargo hold of a commercial flight. Many of the civilians just want to pass their sympathies on to the family and let them know that people are thinking about and praying for them. Still others want Strobel to know what the military has meant to them or want to share with them some sort of experience that has touched them. A particularly moving scene is when a Northwest flight attendant hands Strobel a crucifix for him to keep that obviously is a possession that means a lot to her. Strobel passes it on to Chance’s mother who places it on the top of his casket before burial.
Another moving scene from the film comes early on as the hands and feet of Chance are being meticulously washed at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. This evokes an excellent piece that Chris Jones wrote for Esquire Magazine in May 2008 titled, “The Things That Carried Him.” The article by Jones is a descriptive account of what happens during the final homecoming for one Army Sargent. In his piece Jones also wrote generally about the intimacy and honor for those who prepare the remains of the fallen:
Karen Giles tells a story about another young airman, who was polishing the brass on a dead soldier’s uniform jacket. He was using a little tool, a kind of buffer, to make sure that every button shined. A visitor complimented him on his attention to detail. ‘The family will really appreciate what you’re doing,’ the visitor said. But the airman replied, ‘Oh, no, sir, the family won’t know about this.’ The airman told him that the family had requested that their son be cremated, and just a short while later, he was.
Interestingly, if the story in this film was to happen right now instead of 2004 it would be remarkably different. As of Jan 1, 2007 the Holly Provision, a part of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, changed the law when it comes to how the remains of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines killed in the line of duty are transported to their final resting place. The Department of Defense must use a military transport plane or charter flights because of the concerns raised about proper respect. Remains can no longer be transported by a commercial carrier.
There is little dialogue in this film, and part of the allure of the film is the pageantry the military provides for its fallen. It almost has to be a film with considerably less dialogue to keep the focus on Chance’s sacrifice and journey home. The slow salute is very moving and well executed by any U.S. Marine in their dress blues, and is very emotional in this film.
While this HBO portrayal is ultimately about Chance Phelps and his heroic sacrifice it emphasizes several other important points. When Strobel meets a Marine veteran from the Korean War who came to pay his respects to Chance, we see the camaraderie and special bond between fellow Marines no matter the age, rank, or theater of service. Marines love and cherish their traditions and their accomplishments on the field of battle. The famed nickname for Marines is “Devil Dog,” a moniker of respect they earned by defeating a war hardened and entrenched German enemy at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918. The Germans on the front lines sent dispatches to their headquarters saying the Marines fought like “hounds from hell.”
The courage, tradition, and fighting spirit of the Marines today shows just how dedicated they are to the principles that made our country free. When my own brother was in Iraq with the Marines and I was living in D.C. a few years ago, I decided to go to Arlington National Cemetery. Just months before I had remembered reading a special report about the fresh graves from Iraq and Afghanistan in section 60.
I felt like I should pay my respects since I was mostly just enjoying a warm D.C. summer. As I walked through the headstones the newness of it all was very haunting, some just buried days before. Flowers, teddy bears, letters, and pictures adorned section 60. This section is tucked away from the notable attractions and graves tourists visit at the cemetery. There was an eerie stillness and quietness there. And then I saw a picture of a very attractive young girl against one particular headstone. I read the name and date and realized the girl in the picture was buried below me. She was only eighteen and killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the Army. It’s times like that when war is just too overwhelming and heartbreaking for those even somewhat distanced from it. I believe that is why Taking Chance is a film worth watching, it also celebrates a nation that often struggles to show just how thankful they are of those who make the ultimate sacrifice.