When U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl volunteered to escort the body of a fellow Marine on a final journey home, he had no idea how the mission would affect him and the many people he would meet along the way.
Pfc. Chance Phelps, posthumously promoted to lance corporal, was killed in a firefight in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, in April 2004. Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran with 17 years of military service, requested that he be assigned military escort duty to accompany Phelps' remains from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to the Phelps family in Dubois, Wyo.
Strobl was presented with an outpouring of support and respect for Phelps every step of the way. Civilian construction workers placed hard hats over their hearts as the hearse passed by. The funeral director drove five hours to meet Strobl at the airport in Billings, Mont. One flight attendant even gave Strobl a crucifix, which he later presented to Phelps' family.
Strobl was so amazed by what he experienced that he recorded all of it in a journal. After he shared it with some friends, they passed it along on the Internet, where it became a phenomenon in military and mainstream communities.
Eventually, Strobl's essay was turned into the HBO movie, "Taking Chance"; with actor Kevin Bacon playing the lead role. The film was nominated for 10 prime-time Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie.
Strobl, who received The American Legion Patriots Award during the organization's 91st National Convention in Louisville, Ky., spoke with The American Legion Magazine about "Taking Chance."Q: Why volunteer for the duty of escorting killed servicemembers back to their families?A: Whoever serves as an escort has to be higher or equivalent to the rank of the person they're escorting. I was stationed close to Dover, and I think practically all the officers who were stationed where I was, volunteered. And when you're stationed stateside and so many of your buddies are off fighting, you look for ways you can help them.Q: You've said you felt a connection to Chance. Why was that?A: One was that when he enlisted, he was living in my hometown. He was an artillery man. I am an artillery man. I felt a connection that way.Q: Were you surprised by the way people you encountered on the trip reacted when they found out what you were doing?A: Not surprised by the fact that people would react in this way to a fallen soldier, but probably by the intensity in which they reacted. The flight attendant who gave me the crucifix – you could tell just by looking at it that it was quite old. The edges were smoothed down. Everyone I encountered had such a strong reaction to this.Q: What was it like seeing the way Chance's town honored him when his body was returned home?A: Dubois has a population of around 900 people, and they estimated they had 2,000 people at his funeral. It made me feel a little better, because I felt like his family was going to be taken care of. I knew there would be help for them after I left.Q: What did it feel like for you to reach the end of your journey?A: I felt sort of useless at first. I had been on a mission, and I had accomplished it. I felt there wasn't anything else I could do. But once he was in his grave, I felt relieved that we had made it and that everything had gone so well. I also felt sad, which was strange to me because I didn't even know Chance. But I had spent all this time with him, and to suddenly not be around him was sad.Q: Do you still keep in touch with Chance's family?A: Very frequently. We've visited together. I would say we are very close now.Q: Were you shocked by the way the story took off on the Internet?A: I really was. I typed up some notes and then shot them off to a few buddies. They started sending them around, and it took off.Q: What did it feel like when you learned that HBO wanted to turn your story into a movie?A: My first response was to make sure to check with Chance's family – to make sure they were OK with it. You can obviously spin a message out of a movie, so I needed to be sure Chance's family was OK with it and find out if they had any concerns. After that, it was surreal. The fact that HBO would make a movie out of it was amazing.