Lance Corporal Chance Russell Phelps
United States Marine
Image courtesy of John Phelps
NOTE: The information presented here represents an excerpt from the book, “SPY GAMES: Inside the Murky World of Corporate Espionage” by Steven Fowler and Cola Fugelere; available on Amazon.com. The “Chance Phelps” chapter is 1 of 34 chapters presented in SPY GAMES.
ASSISTING A VETERAN
Although I held many meetings in cemeteries while working on the Dark Side, I’d like to begin with a story about one meeting I held after cleaning up my act and transitioning to Corporate Counterintelligence on the Good Side of the espionage arena. The meeting was scheduled in a poignant setting that involved a potential whistleblower for a major defense contractor.
There’s a Cola Non-Negotiable that reads, “Cola, a Patriotic American, will never knowingly interfere with the activities of others working on behalf of the defense of our nation.” Yes, a defense contractor would fall into that Cola Non-Negotiable. However, in this case, it appeared the defense contractor might be working on behalf of himself and against our nation. It was worth looking into, especially if it could benefit the United States of America.
Back to The Whistleblower…
He was a young former Marine who was attending a work-related week-long defense-related meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Taylor Chantay” (not his real name) was troubled by certain information that crossed his desk at work. He knew that whistleblowers enjoy very well-intentioned legal protections. However, he also knew that reality dictated he take measures to protect himself, since legal protections generally failed to offer most whistleblowers adequate safeguards. Taylor wanted to find a safe conduit for that information. He needed to find someone who could assist him in making the situation right, without undue risk to himself.
Taylor used his Marine Corps contacts for assistance. Those efforts eventually led him to me. Taylor didn’t trust attorneys or the legal system to assist him with this matter safely. The young Marine understood Cola was a former Corporate Spy, now working as a good guy Corporate Counterintelligence professional, and might be helpful in meeting his needs. He was assured that Cola was a true Patriot and could be trusted completely. A valued intermediary reached out to me and placed me in touch with Taylor. Once I understood the nature of his need and what he wanted to reveal about his company, I offered to handle the job pro bono. Just another in a long line of efforts by Cola to seek peace through penance. I also promised to do my level best to insulate him, while making the situation known to the appropriate authorities.
After an exhaustive due diligence investigative effort, I agreed to meet with him. I needed to handle this matter carefully, because of his employer’s relationship with the Federal government. My meeting with the young man was set near Jackson Hole, Wyoming where Taylor would be a peripheral participant in a high-level meeting related to his employer’s business dealings.
Lance Corporal Chance Phelps
Posthumous Promotion to Lance Corporal
I’d recently heard a story about an American hero who’d been laid to rest not far from Jackson Hole. Chance Russell Phelps, a young U.S. Marine, was killed while escorting a convoy carrying 1st Marine Division Brigadier General John F. Kelly, who later became President Donald Trump’s Chief-of-Staff. The convoy came under heavy fire. Although wounded in the attack, Chance Phelps refused to be evacuated. He remained at his post manning an M240 machine gun, covering the evacuation of the rest of his convoy. After successfully offering protection for his men, Phelps began his withdrawal. The young Marine suffered a fatal head wound as he evacuated the area.
On the drive up from Fort Collins, TJ informed me when her son, Coop, deployed on this, his second, “hump” into Iraq he was assigned to be the turret machine gunner in a large IED resistant infantry mobility vehicle called an MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected). MRAP’s are constructed with V-shaped hulls that are designed to direct blasts away from the underside of the vehicle. While most of the armored vehicle’s occupants are well-protected from enemy fire, turret gunners are positioned at the top of the MRAP. The top parts of their bodies are exposed to incoming fire. TJ’s husband was very concerned about Coop’s assignment.
During a conversation with a couple from Fort Collins, Walt and Brooke, TJ discovered they had two sons serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were all at an event organized by Brooke. The activity was associated with providing care packages for men and women deployed to Iraq. Brooke was trying to raise money for purchases related to the project.
Brooke was inspired by a woman she knew named Joyce, who lived in the San Diego area. TJ and her husband knew Joyce as well. Brooke also shared her frustrations about hitting so many brick walls in her fundraising efforts. Many people seemed to think of the Iraq War as something seen on TV and didn’t understand the realities for those on the ground in that war-ravaged land. For those cozy citizens, it was an afterthought and didn’t impact their lives; that it wasn’t real.
Not real? Chance and his family are real. People like Brooke and Joyce get it. Too bad more people don’t understand the sacrifices these families make on behalf of our nation.
Coop’s Hummer Near Combat Outpost Kubaysah
TJ told me Chance was killed doing the same job in a Humvee that her son would be doing in the MRAP. They were both assigned to the M240 Machine Gun. To his parent’s relief, after arriving in Iraq for that 2nd deployment Coop was reassigned to drive the MRAP. Like Chance, her own son went to war in a Humvee during his first Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment. Coop was charged with driving that Humvee. When the battalion commander’s staff researched his previous missions during the first deployment, they chose to have Coop’s experienced hands on the wheel of the commander’s vehicle. TJ and her husband were grateful for that turn of events.
During the drive to Dubois, TJ told me about an event she’d recently attended at the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton in southern California. It was the Christmas season. TJ, her husband, and Coop’s teenage sister, “Sissy,” drove to the San Diego area. They had decided to forgo the exchange of Christmas gifts and, instead, show their gratitude to members of our military. TJ and her husband had been at Pendleton a month earlier to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with their son in the cafeteria. The food was okay, but certainly not a lovingly prepared Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.
They arrived and met with one of the event’s organizers. The lady was well-known for hugging members of the military as they were departing or returning from deployments. She was an avid supporter of the military and a Marine mother. Joyce, affectionately referred to as “Hugs” by TJ’s husband, was always doing something special for our service men and women. TJ said Hugs once raised a lot of money to assist a young Marine and his wife. He’d suffered a major heart infection and needed a heart transplant. Family finances were strained, and Hugs wanted to relieve financial pressures burdening the young family. Hugs met him on one of her regular trips to the hospital visiting war-torn Marines who’d returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
On this particular holiday occasion, four wonderful individuals organized a special Christmas Dinner on behalf of the brand new Marines at Camp Pendleton. Our newest members of the military weren’t able to go home for Christmas. They needed to remain behind for training and guard duty.
Oklahoma physician Rachel Gibbs and her husband, attorney George Gibbs, brainstorming with Hugs and husband Curtis, conceived the idea over dinner one evening. Both couples were parents of U.S. Marines. They didn’t want the kids to suffer through cafeteria food on Christmas.
George and Rachel worked with a Tulsa barbecue restaurant, Albert G’s, to secure a special barbecue Christmas dinner for some of our nation’s newest Marines. Chuck Gawey, Albert G’s owner, and his team worked several days preparing more than 200 pounds of meat for the meal. The special dinner included pulled pork, many slabs of ribs, as well as an assortment of other meats. They also provided sauces, salads, bread, and dessert. The meal was placed into several large foot locker-sized containers, then flown overnight by UPS to southern California, and delivered to Camp Pendleton. UPS delivered their bill to the Gibbs family.
TJ and her family, Hugs and her husband Curt, as well as many others, young and old, pitched in. They prepared table settings, heated and plated the food, and served that most excellent Oklahoma meal to the young Marines. Sissy told her parents it was the best Christmas she’d ever had. TJ and her husband agreed.
I read an online article about the event. It appears Rachel and George invested many thousands of dollars on the project. Chuck heavily discounted Albert G’s bill. Sacrificial giving at its best!
People like TJ and her husband, Sissy, Curt, Hugs, George, Rachel, Chuck, Walt, Brooke, and others who support our troops are our nation’s unsung heroes. They do these things out of grateful hearts and sincere concern; reaping a form of joy only available through service to others. Cola is eternally grateful for people like you.
Back to Chance Phelps…
I don’t recall the details of how the late Chance Phelps became well-known after that battle. I do know, however, the story of his journey home was shared in a journal account penned by Marine Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl. The Colonel volunteered to escort the young PFC home. Strobl didn’t know Phelps. Moreover, it is unusual for officers to escort enlisted men back home to their families for burial. However, Strobl and Phelps were from the same hometown. The Colonel wanted to honor Chance by escorting him home.
Strobl’s report was widely read and very well received. The account of that journey was eventually told in an HBO documentary, “Taking Chance” starring Kevin Bacon. I later watched that program with my wife on television. To this day, my wife doesn’t know I once paid my respects to Lance Corporal Chance Russell Phelps at his graveside.
I chose the cemetery, where U.S. Marine Chance Phelps was laid to rest, for my meeting with former Marine Taylor Chantay. My meeting plan included the requisition of three Watchers, one Cutout, and an Escort. The three Watchers drove in from Salt Lake City. My Colleagues drove two white SUVs and a Nissan 350Z to Jackson Hole. Once there they set up operations. Leaving one of the Watchers behind, the other two ferried the “Z” car to Dubois, Wyoming for later use by TJ. They then returned to Jackson Hole in one of the SUV’s.
An Escort is usually assigned the responsibility of escorting a Subject, usually a meeting attendee, to a specific location to meet with Cola. Not to be confused with prostitution.
Back to Jackson Hole…
We positioned the Watchers in Jackson Hole to shadow Taylor, while I drove Escort TJ and myself from Fort Collins, Colorado to Dubois, Wyoming. TJ, a resident of that beautiful Colorado community, was deeply moved by the story of Chance Phelps. The Operation’s success was critical to my young Colleague.
TJ and her husband previously traveled to Dubois to pay their respects to Chance Phelps. She had a good sense of the small town and its cemetery. During our 400 mile drive from Fort Collins, TJ and I discussed how the meeting should unfold.
We intended to transport Taylor to the cemetery in the 350Z. TJ’s assistance was critical in choreographing our activities from the time she drove him into the small community, to the moment we revealed Chance’s grave to our young Whistleblower-to-be. We developed the framework of a plan on our long drive from Colorado to northwestern Wyoming.
TJ’s first duty upon our arrival in Dubois was to assist me with an initial reconnoiter of the small town and the cemetery. We walked the cemetery for about an hour before we settled on the steps we should take once she arrived with Taylor. As you’ll see shortly, the choreography was both critical and delicate. The choreographed plans were designed to assist us in determining if Taylor and the Cola Team were moving forward with the right motivations and having a good understanding of the risks. More importantly, Taylor needed to know, deep in his core, if he really wanted to take the tremendous risks associated with outing his employer. We chose the grave of Chance Phelps to assure everyone involved that what we were planning was the right thing to do.
After finalizing our plans, I drove TJ to Lander Street, where our Watchers previously parked the “Z” in front of one of several large bushes just off the main drag. TJ would be driving 75 miles to Jackson Hole in the “Z” to collect our Client, while I continued reconnoitering Dubois. The stage was set.
One of the significant benefits of planning meets in cemeteries is in setting Pigeon Memory. Unlike the sensory craziness at NASCAR races and NFL stadiums on game day, the sights, smells, and sounds within cemeteries are relatively static; and easy to imprint on one’s mind.
Back to Dubois…
After delivering TJ to the “Z” car, I discretely staged three different bug-out bags in various places outside of Dubois, should I have to egress the area on foot. We weren’t involved in anything illegal by meeting with Taylor, but there was always the risk of crossing someone dangerous, and I needed to prepare myself and TJ for the possibility that we might need to make an unplanned departure.
Once I finished my emergency egress plans, I went back to the cemetery and stood by Chance’s grave for a very long time; soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells. I thought of the young Marine and his family. I considered Strobl’s mission. Words like honor and sacrifice filled my mind. I realized I was standing on hallowed ground, at the final resting place of an American hero who had, in his father’s words, “Become part of Americana.”
Getting back to business, I noted the direction of the wind and every structure and road I could see. I categorized sounds and smells. I further considered what I’d be saying to Taylor. Then I was ready.
Before driving down the hill to rendezvous with my Escort and her Package, I thought long and hard about Chance, his family, and his buddies. I considered my family as well. Throughout it all, my son was in the forefront of my mind. I realized just how painful it would be to lose him. After pulling myself back from a place of deep and profound thoughts, I realized my vision was occluded. I stood before the blurred image of Chance’s tombstone. My face was wet. I’d been weeping and didn’t even know it.
A Package is usually a person being escorted by a Cola Escort, to a meeting with Cola.
Back to Taylor…
Taylor was expecting me to make contact with him in Jackson Hole, with a series of coded knocks rapped on his hotel room door, followed by bona fides, during the wee hours of the next morning. The bona fide for Taylor’s ears in this Operation was, “Bellawood.” As usual, I wasn’t going along with a plan conveyed to a potential meeting attendee; even though the ”wee hours” plan was my design. It was pure misdirection.
Shortly after lunch that day, a Cola Colleague slipped into a restroom where Taylor was taking care of business. The timing was okay for Taylor. He wouldn’t be missed. The morning meeting schedule ended with lunch. Participants were freed for the remainder of the day and evening to enjoy the sights and attractions in and around Jackson Hole. Chantay would be back in time for the following day’s events. The Operation was officially underway.
When Taylor turned from the urinal toward the sink, My Colleague tucked a folded note into his breast pocket, patted the pocket twice, and quickly departed the restroom. The paper told Taylor to immediately leave the hotel and walk to the building housing “Wyoming Outfitters.” He was instructed to go inside the store and take an “urgent” phone call. Before departing the restroom, however, he was advised to tear the note into tiny pieces and drop them into a toilet. The instructions indicated he was to repeatedly flush the toilet until every last remnant of the note disappeared from the porcelain bowl.
As Taylor entered Wyoming Outfitters, he heard a voice call out, “Anyone here named Bellawood? There’s an urgent call for Bellawood!”
Taylor took the call and was instructed to walk out quickly and cut across the Jackson Town Square.
As he cut diagonally through the grassy, wooded, park-like town square, Taylor noticed someone standing by a flagpole to his left calling out, “Hey Bellawood! Over here!” Taylor left the path he was on and cut across the grass. It was TJ at the pole. We figured the sight of a woman would assist in putting the young Marine at ease. She told Taylor to continue walking, step over the short two rail fence, and get into the white sports utility vehicle sitting at the curb with two small kayaks tied to the roof rack.
After Taylor hopped in, the SUV drove north on Cache Street, then made several quick turns. On the west side of Miller Park, Taylor jumped out. He was wearing a cheap fluffy beard, held in place by an elastic band, and a red hoodie, with the hood covering his head. The beard wasn’t supposed to look genuine. It was intended to draw attention to the beard itself, while simultaneously concealing the man’s face who was wearing the beard.
The white sports utility vehicle slowed next to an identical SUV facing the same direction. Dressed in the feature obscuring clothing, Taylor jumped out of the first SUV and into its twin. Neither vehicle came to a complete stop. The transfer was nearly perfect, and the two cars continued in the same direction; taking turns as the lead vehicle. When they arrived at an intersection previously selected for a divergent maneuver, one vehicle turned left and the other drove to the right.
After a few more turns, Taylor’s ride slowed and a man with a fake beard and red hoodie jumped out and hopped into the back end of a green and white Grand Teton National Park ambulance.
The ambulance was now carrying an impostor. The fellow who hopped into the emergency vehicle was a Cutout having a build and height similar to that of Taylor Chantay. He neither knew anything of the Operation, nor any of our Team Members. He only knew that he was told to jump into the ambulance. He never saw Taylor’s face and didn’t know anyone he saw that day. Our timing was critical. The green and white vehicle would get him out of town and drop him off at the airport, where a commercial flight to Denver was preparing to depart.
The ambulance was actually out of service on that day. Someone with access to the vehicle enjoyed five crisp one hundred dollar bills for the quick ten mile trip to the airport, where Taylor’s impersonator was dropped off for his flight.
The Actual Hat Worn by Taylor
A few minutes later Taylor, now wearing a Marine Corps Museum baseball cap, hopped out of the White SUV and jumped into a Nissan 350Z. Moments later the sleek sports car was rocketing down a ribbon of asphalt on US Route 26, heading toward the Dubois Cemetery. At the same time, our three Watchers were returning to Salt Lake City in the two SUV’s. The four kayaks remained behind in Jackson Hole, after being anonymously donated to a local church.
Less than two hours later, the white sports car drove into Dubois and slowly wound its way through town and headed up the hill toward the cemetery. I moved in behind the vehicle as it entered Dubois. I was driving a large white Ford Excursion with magnetic door signs advertising, “Two Loons Adventures.”
As we headed through Dubois, I hoped this would be my third and final trip to the cemetery today. Turning a corner, something to the right caught my eye. I watched a man step off a curb, walk around a pickup truck, and get in it. I immediately recognized him from a news piece I’d seen about Chance Phelps. It was Chance’s father, John. A well-regarded professional artist, Mr. Phelps appeared to be a man carved from the granite cliffs of the Old West. Tall, lean, and ruggedly handsome. That proud father of a great U.S. Marine had just unknowingly crossed paths with a small group of patriotic people on their way to honor his son.
My heart ached for the man on that day. In fact, that heartache continues to this day. His son and the entire Phelps family paid a terrible price on behalf of our nation. I cannot fathom the emotions and pain endured by the family.
Back to Northwestern Wyoming…
I considered Chance and his final resting place as we began making the trip up the hill. The majestic pine trees, stationed around the cemetery, appeared to serve as vigilant sentries, guarding the remains of those inhabiting that sacred ground. High on the hill with a panoramic view of Wyoming’s Wind River and spectacular Absaroka Mountain Range, the cemetery overlooks the town of Dubois. From the small community, the pines appear as evenly spaced spikes.
Mr. Phelps joined our little parade driving toward the cemetery. As we rounded a ninety-degree turn on Boedecker Street, I looked high through the upper part of the Excursion’s windshield. The tops of the pine sentries guarding Chance were visible nearly a half mile distant atop the hill. From that perspective, I could simultaneously see the pines through the windshield, as well as the mirror image of John Phelps at the wheel of his pickup truck behind us, as it was eating the dust kicked up by our convoy. The scene was unsettling. What if he was heading towards Chance’s grave? Had he keyed on us for some reason? Since TJ and I failed to plan contingencies for John’s intrusion into our Operation, how would she react? Did we need to bug out?
My mind raced. I was about to flash my lights at TJ and have her pull over when everything changed. Mr. Phelps turned off and drove east on Mountain View Drive, shortly before our arrival at the cemetery. I finally relaxed.
Ahead of me, the white 350Z came to a stop on the east side of the cemetery. My young Colleague, TJ, exited her vehicle. As instructed, Taylor remained in the little Nissan.
At the time, TJ was a Blue Star Infantry Marine mother. Her son was working an area in Iraq less than eighty miles distant from Ramadi, where Chance Phelps made the ultimate sacrifice. During the Memorial Day weekend in 2009, she and her husband made the journey to Dubois to pay their respects to Chance. Although this was her second appearance at Chance’s grave, the “Bellawood” Operation remained a challenging, albeit rewarding trip, for TJ.
Back to The Dubois Cemetery…
I drove to the opposite side of the large grass covered rectangle, sparsely populated with gravestones and flowers. I parked the huge Ford Excursion in a large triangle shaped parking area, west of our intended destination. My vehicle was facing one of six rectangular burial sections in the cemetery. This area was the intended location for my first and only meeting with Taylor Chantay. Within that section, were a number of headstones. In the near center of the lawn were two upright gravestones bearing the name, Phelps.
I walked to an area about 10’ north of, and directly perpendicular to, the larger grave marker and waited as TJ approached my position. When TJ arrived where I stood, I noticed her face reflected a measure of concern. She told me Taylor was a little too flippant about the Operation during their two-hour road trip. I reminded her that our well-planned choreography was intended to address that particular problem. I also pointed out that his flippancy wasn’t such a bad thing.
A dramatic turn of events was about to unfold and fall on the young man. An unexpected revelation, if it worked as planned, would catch Taylor entirely off guard. The choreography was intended to, figuratively, knock him off his feet. When asked if there were any other problems, TJ gave me the all clear.
I raised my hand and beckoned Taylor to join us. The young Marine unfolded his frame and extricated himself from the tiny car. He walked briskly in our direction. Keeping his eyes on me, he failed to see the little heart-shaped headstone bearing the single word, Phelps. I didn’t want him to connect the dots, just yet.
Although not sure, I can only surmise the small headstone marks the grave of Chance’s older sister who, based on the dates shown on the marker, passed away three and a half years before his birth; after living for a short two and a half weeks.
Back to Dubois…
As Taylor approached, he chuckled and remarked about “all the cloak and dagger” associated with our meeting. That was my opening. I needed to set the stage and erase his light-hearted demeanor before Chance became front and center.
I gave a slight nod to TJ, and without drawing attention to herself, she meandered to the south. He slowed and began to look around the cemetery. Not good. I immediately stepped forward and reached my hand out to shake that of Mr. Chantay.
He was taller than the average Marine. He had the fixed square jaw, flat stomach, and erect posture often seen in active duty Marines. Seeing that, I recalled Taylor received his “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty” (DD214) a few months earlier. He hadn’t been out of the Corps long, and it showed.
I uttered a few pleasantries about the view to distract Taylor’s gaze from his immediate surroundings. As I spoke, TJ positioned herself in front of the headstone belonging to Sarah Katherine Phelps. TJ’s role at that point was to make sure Taylor didn’t see the word “Phelps” carved into that stone.
I placed my hands on Taylor’s shoulder and slowly guided him toward the east side of Chance’s upright gravestone. I chose that side because Chance’s name didn’t appear there. It was, however, tricky. Chance’s grave had a second ground level marker bearing his name just 8 feet to the east of the upright stone. It was important to keep Taylor’s eyes away from that marker, so I used the grand scenery as a distraction. I remarked about the view over the white flagpoles lining the parking lot to our west; followed by a comment that the area was chosen to provide us with privacy and provide an atmosphere conducive to introspection.
Why Cola? Why keep Taylor from seeing Chance’s name? Good question.
I needed to make certain the young former Marine was in for both a penny and a pound. He was taking a big step asking me to work with him and move forward with the whistleblowing plan. Chance would help in more ways than one. Our little performance was expected to take a dramatic and telling turn when Chance Phelps made his dramatic entrance.
Taylor was acquainted with Chance. During our pre-meet investigatory phase, we discovered Taylor knew young Mr. Phelps. He’d blogged about how they met over pizza at Camp Pendleton’s School of Infantry (SOI) and hung out once in Oceanside, California while on leave. They also sat on the tailgate of someone’s pickup truck in a dirt lot in Twentynine Palms, California eating fast food. Behind the pickup and filling their view was a giant mural of Marines at war, painted on the side of a building on the town’s main drag. They discussed war and what the wall meant to them. In the blog, Taylor said he’d prefer to keep the details of their conversation about the large painting to himself. He wrote, “That’s something I shared with Chance. Nothing embarrassing or anything like that. Chance and I connected that evening. That brief time was ours and I’d prefer to keep it that way. It’s my way of keeping my brother alive to me.”
The blog entry mentioned them getting a huge laugh out of watching a short “Boot” come out of the bathroom of the town’s best pizza restaurant shaking his head. The Boot was wearing a red shirt splattered with dark spots. They knew exactly what happened. The bathroom in that pizza place had the highest mounted urinal either of them had ever seen. It was clear the Boot had to pee uphill and was splattered by his own fluids as they ricocheted off the porcelain urinal. Taylor penned, “As we laughed at the Boot, I looked across the table at Chance. His trademark smile and uneven dimples were in overdrive. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect my grinning mischievous friend was behind mounting that urinal so high on the wall.”
A “Boot” is a disparaging term used by seasoned Marines to describe young Marines fresh out of boot camp. BOOT is said to be an acronym meaning Beginning Of One’s Tour.
In the contemporary Marine Corps, especially with infantry troops, new Marines are generally called “Boots” until they’ve been in combat. Their treatment follows the lines of high school freshmen and fraternity pledges. Once they are seasoned members of the unit, or when a fresh group of Boots arrives, that demeaning title becomes part of their past.
Back to Chance’s Grave…
After I finished walking and distracting him with the grand panoramic view from the cemetery, Taylor was positioned precisely where I wanted him. He was standing next to and on the backside of, Chance’s upright headstone. Carefully planned misdirection successfully kept Taylor from seeing Chance’s name on the lawn level marker eight feet behind him.
Looking down at the back of Chance’s headstone, I slowly and softly recited the words engraved on the monument.
We’ll always know you tall and free,
beyond the glowing sky.
So fly away Young Warrior,
We’ll see you by and by.
Then I read the inscription, carved in all capital letters, found at the base of the upright stone.
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS BRONZE STAR WITH VALOR
KIA, AL ANBAR, IRAQ. APRIL 9, 2004
Looking Taylor in the eyes, I said, “Young man, sacrifice is tough. In many cases, it cannot be undone. We’re standing at the grave of a young Marine, like yourself. Unlike yourself, he paid the ultimate price. The ramifications of his decision to join the military have impacted an untold number of others. Some might argue the price was too high. Others may be grateful for his sacrifice. Military supporters will often say they know he was doing the right thing. Family, friends, and acquaintances miss him, are proud of him, and are glad to have had an opportunity to know this young Marine.”
Taking a step toward the young man I said, “The point Taylor is that choices have consequences and the ramifications of difficult decisions will invariably impact the lives of others; especially family, friends, and acquaintances. Are you prepared to take the big step with your desire to become a whistleblower? Have you thoughtfully considered the risks and how they might impact your loved ones with this decision?
Taylor, I’m good at what I do. Very good. However, I’m also human. I will do my level best to protect you in this matter, but I cannot offer the kind of guarantees that will ensure you remain free from fallout.”
Then in a dramatic move, I bent over and placed my hand on Chance’s headstone and bowed my head. As a cool Wyoming breeze kicked up a little, I whispered. “Son, I’m so sorry you’re no longer able to enjoy life with your family. I’m sure you’ve been missed. I know you touched the lives of many people and your absence has been difficult for them in countless ways.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Marine standing beside me lost one or more friends on the battlefield. I’m sure if he lost a friend that made the life-altering decision to go to war, it impacted Taylor’s life in unexpected ways. If he lost a brother in the war, it must have left him with heartache and sadness. You made a choice. A decision. It’s too late for you to change your mind. It’s not too late for Marine Taylor Chantay.”
As I looked up, I could see Taylor’s stoicism remained. Emotionless and impassive. Was it surface stoicism? Had he resolved to be a tough guy at this meeting? Was his resolution firm and based on solid conviction? Was Taylor’s choice to blow the whistle just whimsy? Alternatively, was it cautiously considered? Was he, at the core of his being, solidly behind this course of action? Would he back out when it started getting tough? Would he remain faithful to the decision? Semper Fidelis? I needed to know. I need assurances and firmly believed Chance Phelps would help me know the answers to my questions.
I stood, turned my back to the headstone and stepped into Taylor’s personal space. Placing my right hand on his left shoulder, I gently guided him to his right and around the tombstone. As Chance’s name on the other side of the handsome marker came into view, I felt Taylor shudder. He froze. I looked into his eyes as they welled with tears. He quickly removed the “National Museum of the Marine Corps” hat from his head, revealing a trademark USMC High and Tight haircut.
Then Taylor’s knees buckled, and he dropped to the earth on one knee. A quickly outstretched hand appeared from nowhere and kept him from falling forward. I was instantly reminded of the final scene in Saving Private Ryan when actor Harrison Young, in the role of an older James Francis Ryan, dropped to a knee in front of Captain Miller’s grave.
Taylor began sobbing heavily. Racked with grief-filled convulsions, the handsome Marine wilted under the weight of crushing emotion. It appeared his pain was sincere. The passion was overwhelmingly personal. I had to look away.
As I began turning my head, I instantly considered the possibility that I might be falling prey to an act. Needing to be sure of what was unfolding before me, I glanced up at TJ. She had streams of tears running down her face. Confirmation. TJ doesn’t get caught up in performances. Taylor’s grief was, indeed, authentic.
Then I, too, began weeping. I lost track of time and situational awareness. It seems as though time stopped. The emotion at that time and place was raw, real, and will forever remain with me. A hush descended upon our small gathering. Minutes passed.
I looked down and watched a teardrop fall from Taylor’s jaw and disappear into the grass just forward of the grave marker. Taylor began to open his mouth and a thick saliva bubble formed between his lips. Hollywood’s best actors could never pull off this performance. It was genuine, heartfelt, and grief-stricken. Taylor whispered, “I’m so sorry Chance. I’m so sorry. So sorry.”
Taylor then reached across and traced his index finger in an arc around the first engraved “C” of Chance’s first name. Pausing, Taylor quietly said, “Doggone It Dimples. I surely miss you dude. I’ll never forget you.”
After a few minutes, Taylor stood up and looked at me, then turned to TJ. He said, ”Ma’am, thank you so much for bringing me to see Chance. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me.”
As TJ nodded with a tight sad smile, Taylor turned back to me and straightened as if he was about to be inspected by a Drill Instructor. Drawing his shoulders back he looked into my eyes for an uncomfortable pregnant moment. Was he about to back out? His expression changed. A firmness fell over his face. His jaw reflected resolve. I knew he’d made a decision. As his eyes filled with determination, Taylor Chantay cleared his throat. He took a deep breath and roared, “Raaaahhhh!!! Let’s Roll Cola!”
Roll we did. We successfully blew the whistle and exposed the contractor’s misdeeds. Although the matter worked its way through the Pentagon and everything was made right, it neither impacted Taylor directly nor did it go public. I’m thankful Taylor’s role in the matter remained unknown to all involved. He’s a good man, and we have Chance Phelps to thank for ensuring the Operation began correctly; and for the right reasons.
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