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.)