About Me

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Recent retiree--35 year's experience teaching reading, English, adult basic education and volunteer leadership skills. Started this blog to exchange ideas and commentary with friends and others having an interest in joining the discussions. Greatest life accomplishments include: 1.organized my 3rd grade class to check out library books for me to get around librarian's weekly limit--Amazon.com, the Mullins Elementary 3rd Grade Class of 1956 is still waiting for "thank you" notes; 2. volunteered in the Peace Corps, island of St. Kitts, West Indies; 3.taught adults to read, earn their GEDs., and speak English as a second language; 4. bought a border collie puppy for $6, got evicted rather than give him up, and began a life-long love affair with all things "Dog"; 5. joined a physical fitness boot camp in my mid-50s--don't mess with someone who's been doing regulation pushups in wet grass at 5:30 a.m.; 6. walked across Northern England with best friend Sally--over 80 miles from the Irish to North Seas; and 7. travelled to many foreign countries for pleasure and work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Iraq to Wyoming, Taking Chance Home


August 31,2009--4,336 U.S. confirmed deaths in Iraq since March 2003. In Afghanistan 813 U.S. confirmed deaths since October 2001. July and August of this year were the deadliest months with 153 coalition casualties confirmed in Afghanistan. I got these grim statistics from icasualties . I went searching for this information after watching the HBO film Taking Chance this past weekend. As I studied the charts and graphs in these casualty reports, I thought: behind each of these numbers is the story of a U.S. soldier, a family, and a community.

For example, in April 2004, a total of 1,215 soldiers were killed in Iraq. Over a thousand stories that needed to be told. Among them 19 year old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, a young Marine who was shot by Iraqi insurgents on April 9 in Al Anbar Province. Taking Chance is the story of his journey home and another Marine's, Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, who volunteered to accompany Chance's remains from Dover Air Force Base Mortuary in Delaware to his family in Dubois, Wyoming. It is also the story of everyday Americans, military and civilian, who cared for Chance's body and honored his service in quiet ways for the eight day trip from Iraq to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to Dover AFB in Delaware to Chance's hometown in Wyoming.

The film's producer, Ross Katz, spoke of "pulling the curtain back" from the unknowns of this precisely rendered military ritual of caring for a dead soldier. That's exactly what the film does. I, and I suspect most other civilians, had no idea of the manner in which a soldier's remains gets from the battlefield to final resting place. It is incredibly moving to see. It is important that more of us know about this ritual. Forget the days when images of the flag draped coffins were not allowed to be shown on the news. We all need to see this, even in the midst of war fatigue, to underscore the importance of bringing the war to a close. More importantly, we must remember the consequences of war, symbolized by these flag-draped coffins, and not become complacent in our everyday lives and concerns. Across the U.S. too many families are bearing more than their fair share of concern and grief as this war drags on. The least we can do is remember.

This film is compelling, deeply moving. Dialogue is spare and bare bones, but the communication among strangers is more eloquent than any words. And the quiet images say everything that need to be said to carry the film's message. Kevin Bacon, as Lt. Col. Strobl, perfectly captures the character, playing the role with respect and dignity. The other character that is always by his side is Chance. They make the journey together, inseparable. Here's a brief trailer for the film so you can see what I mean about the atmosphere:


Grace Notes-- here are a few scenes to look out for. I was just overcome by the tender care, dignity, and silent respect shown to this young soldier:

-- soldiers ceremonial passing of bags of ice to keep the bodies in as good a condition as possible on the trip from Iraq

--rows of flag draped coffins on the dimly lit air carrier (remember there were 1,215 killed in April 2004)

--honor guards waiting in the rain at Ramstein AFB to transfer bodies to another carrier for flight to Dover

--the hushed, reverential tending of the bodies at Dover Mortuary--washing away the blood, cleaning personal effects to be returned to parents, dressing in full uniform and medals even though it would be a closed funeral

--landscape workers laying down tools, removing caps and standing at attention as the hearse leaves Dover AFB

--personal effects kept in a red velvet pouch, always on Strobl's person. For Chance, it was his watch (still on Baghdad time), his dog tags, a St. Christopher medal, and crucifix--he had all these on his person when shot

--Chance's body moved from one aircraft to another(in PA and MN) by itself, separate from luggage. Cargo handlers, pilot, and other passengers stood silently beside the plane as his body was loaded and unloaded

--a trucker started an impromptu funeral cortege when he passed the hearse on the highway. He removed his cap, turned on low beams and soon 10-15 other cars joined the escort (one of the most majestic scenes in the film)

--Strobl's meeting the family in a schoolroom before Chance's funeral in the school gymnasium. He handed over Chance's personal effects (including a small crucifix given to him by a flight attendant on the trip out) and told them about the respect and honor shown to Chance on the way.

--meeting with Chance's buddies and other veterans at the local VFW hall before the funeral, sharing stories about Chance and their own experiences in war.

In my own neighborhood there's a plain little red brick house that looks like it could use some upkeep--no landscaping, curtains drawn, lawn needs mowing. Several times this past year I've seen a white sheet hung from the gutters across this house with this spray painted message: "Welcome Home Michael". I have no idea who "Michael" is, but I suspect he may be in the KY Guards or Reserves because there's also an American and Commonwealth of Kentucky flags in the yard. It was good to see that sign hanging, especially around the holidays. Now, after seeing Taking Chance, it will mean so much more because I'll know that Michael is still safe, even though the war goes on.

(Note: Image credit--HBO Films. The film premiered in February 2009. I was able to get it from Netflix in August.)

11 comments:

Swampwitch said...

With our son-in-law back in Iraq for the third time, these statistics scare me ! I tend to act like an ostrich and shy away from those movies until he's home safely. Thanks for taking the time to create an awareness about this.

Jan n Jer said...

You are so right, we must never forget that our soldiers are putting their life on the line everyday. My Stepdaughter who is in the Air Force, just came home in Feb from her 3rd tour in the Middle East. It is quite tense when you have a loved one over there. I am definitely going to rent that movie. Thanks for letting us know about it. BTW Sayre is our FM host next week!

Jan n Jer said...

I forgot to tell you..your comment on my school post was funny, you hit the nail right on the head. The kindergartner was happy to have her picture taken, the other two were embarassed..LOL

m (the misanthrope) said...

My friend, thanks for visiting and for the neighbor commiserations :-) I don't call myself a misanthrope for nuthin'!

Now...about Taking Chance. I admit that I have not had the mental fortitude to watch it. I'm ashamed of that, since there are so many people in this country who have loved ones at war and for whom this is an all-too-real possibility (like Swampy above). Thank you for the review. I may get up the courage to watch one day.

The Church Lady said...

I too have ssen some "Welcome Home" signs in the neighborhood. It just makes my heart smile. I will have to check out this movie.

Faye said...

swampy--I can understand why you couldn't stand to dwell on these stats. Too close to home for military families. For the rest of us though it's a "pulling back the curtain" as the producer said.

janis--the holidays are especially hard on families and the soldiers, I feel sure. To me, it's wrong the way we're able to go on about our celebrations when other families are in a constant state of anxiety.

Yay for Sayre. Don't know about you but for me the hosting for FM is not a problem, it's the coming up with an original topic. Maybe that should be our challenge one week--come up with a couple of original topics for future Fun Mondays. 20 ppl X 2 topics--almost enough for a year.

m for misanthrope --won't kid you, this was an emotionally draining film to watch. But isn't that one way to judge the importance of a work of art? It makes us feel something. I wrestle with posting serious pieces because, for me a blog, is all about fun and connecting with many people. But now and then it's good to deal with a serious subject that may speak to others as well.

church lady--the "Welcome Home Michael" is literally an old bed sheet spray painted with this message. Makes me glad to see it hanging out.

Debs said...

My step-son is contemplating joining the marines, but rightly or wrongly I've tried to discourage him.

I believe these men (some seem so young) do a magnificent job, but the statistics are terrifying, and I couldn't bear to think of him being hurt or killed.

Faye said...

debs--did you notice in this season of Spooks Lucas North, aka our lovely Richard Armitage, made the observation that the general public doesn't think that much about the war--"Harry's in Afghanistan". Underlying sentiment, we've sent a member of the royal family, that should be enough. You're right to not want your son, who's probably not even 18 yrs old, to be put in harm's way before he's even had a chance to venture out and experience life.

Celeste said...

I don't care how one feels about the war, I believe that our boys who make the ultimate sacrifice deserve the ultimate respect.

Our small town, which seems to hit the National Press only for the bad stuff, recently welcomed Sgt. Jay Hoskins home, killed in action in Afghanistan. You can see a video of the homecoming at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uC_CzUbXhY

It's long video, but beginning at about 2:45 it begins to track the journey to the funeral home and shows the streets lined with citizens welcoming Jay home. Every time I watch it, I cry. I am so proud to be living in this town. The same thing happened for his funeral procession a few days later.

May God protect our men in war and the families they leave behind. (My pics from the funeral procession: http://ragracers.smugmug.com/Friends/Jay-Hoskins-Funeral-Procession/9286583_5KnhU#620645034_UJAso )

(PS: If you go to the website of the person who made the video (JCastillo), there are some very moving clips. He honors those who have died weekly. I can't watch those clips without crying, either.)

Faye said...

celeste--one thing I admired about this film was that there was absolutely no political statement made--for or against the war. I agree that it's right for everyone to have an opinion and support their particular beliefs about whether we should be at war. But in the end we should all remember the young men and women who die and recognize the grief of families and friends who must go on.

I'll check out the links you provided for Jay Hoskins' homecoming.

BS said...

The soldier who took Chance home is from Quantico, VA which is right down the road from where I live. It got much publicity ... and of course, I watched it. My father used to perform the same duties when he was in the Army - just a different war (Viet Nam). Very emotional - Every time my son gets deployed to Afghanistan (contractor, not military), I hold my breath until he is once again home.