A Fallen Son
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SINGING: Fly away young warrior…
SPENCER MICHELS: The war in Iraq came to the small town of Dubois, Wyo., last weekend. People gathered to say farewell to 19-year-old Chance Phelps, a private first class in the Marines who was killed earlier this month in a shootout in Ramadi, just west of Baghdad. Rear Admiral Richard Porterfield spoke at the funeral.
REAR ADMIRAL RICHARD PORTERFIELD: I want you to know that he died a hero. He never let himself or his other fellow Marines down. He showed great valor under intense weapons fire at him and his fellow Marines.
SPENCER MICHELS: One thousand people, more than the entire population of the town, came from all over Wyoming and Colorado to attend the funeral. It was held in the high school gymnasium, the only building large enough to hold such a crowd. After the service, people lined Main Street to pay tribute as his body was carried by a horse-drawn wagon up the hill to the cemetery. (Bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace”) Gretchen Mack and John Phelps are his parents. They said their son first started talking about joining the marines after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11.
GRETCHEN MACK: That just changed everything. He just told me, says, “I got to go.” I couldn’t stop him. I didn’t want to stop him, but my heart was just … you know, I think I always knew really that he probably wouldn’t come back.
JOHN PHELPS: He was going to go over there to protect us, to fight on their soil instead of our soil. If we don’t go over there and fight, we’ll be doing it here. It was just as plain and simple as that.
SPENCER MICHELS: The 960 residents of Dubois are firmly rooted in the land. The picturesque town at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains serves as a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. It’s a quiet town that seems a world away from the war in Iraq. Christine Smith is the publisher of the Dubois Frontier, the town’s weekly newspaper. Phelps’ death has been the front page story for the past two weeks.
CHRISTINE SMITH: It’s not like we’re a bunch of uninformed hicks living in a bubble. You know, we read the papers, we see everyday how many soldiers have been killed, and we’re touched by it. But living here in a small town and you look around and the beauty of this town sometimes buffers the ugliness of the world. But then you have something like this happen with chance and it’s right there in your lap, and you can’t ignore it.
SPENCER MICHELS: Dubois is a close-knit, patriotic town. Since World War II, hundreds of residents have served in foreign wars, and the VFW Hall has become the center of the community. A room at the hall has already been named in honor of Phelps. Next to it a photo display honors the town’s sons and daughters who are in the military. Nine are serving in Iraq or will be there shortly. Phelps’ death has devastated people here, but it has not dimmed their support for the war.
ROSEY GRAFF: I have a daughter in the military. Most of my friends have children in the military. You know, that’s just strong with us, and we worry a lot. We hope that there are no more funerals in Dubois like this. But Iraq needs us. I believe we need to be there and we need to help the world. So we have to do our part, even if we’re little Dubois.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chance Phelps’ closest friends said not only was he obsessed with doing his part, he was always encouraging others to do so as well. Private First Class John Hakes joined the Marines with Phelps. His only regret is that he has not yet been deployed to Iraq.
PFC. JOHN HAKES: He died for his country and died like a warrior, and he doesn’t want anybody crying for him because he died doing what he wanted to do forever. It was just in our heart to go, and that’s all we talked about was going over there. The reason it’s important is because we’re liberating a country that never … doesn’t even know what freedom is, and they’ve never seen it before. And the reason why they are resisting it so much is because they don’t know what freedom is and how good it can be.
SPENCER MICHELS: There are some in the community who are opposed to the war. Laney Hicks is a wildlife artist and has written several antiwar letters to the editor of the newspaper. She says she supports the young people who are serving in the military, but she can’t support the war.
LANEY HICKS: We love our children and I want them stay here. And I don’t think it’s any of our business in Iraq. It’s not our business to be the policemen of the world. We’ve always been defenders before and now we are aggressors, and that makes it much more difficult to defend this as a good war.
SPENCER MICHELS: But her view is definitely a small minority in this small rural town.
JOHN PHELPS: See with the blue patina coming down on it. We’re simulating moonlight.
SPENCER MICHELS: Chance’s father John, who is a Vietnam Vet and a painter and sculptor by trade, has done some military paintings in the past, and he says his son’s death will likely inspire him to do many more. Two years ago, the elder Phelps won a competition to sculpt a war memorial for Fremont County. His son was the model for the soldier who is looking down at the helmet of a fallen comrade. Now chance Phelps’ name will be among those engraved on the sculpture, the sons and daughters of Dubois killed in action.