March 2009 Column Winner

Soldiers’ families won’t mourn alone
Cindy Allen, Enid News & Eagle

The U.S. government’s policy of not allowing news coverage of the return of war dead has always seemed to be futile, at best. 

After all, what does the government expect to gain from barring coverage of these brave men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom?

Some have said it was done out of respect for the families and that barring the coverage has provided families privacy in their time of grief. Those who are more cynical said the government established the policy as a way to “hide” the realities of war from the general public.

There’s an HBO movie out right now that chronicles the journey of one of our American soldiers who died in Iraq in 2004. The story is titled “Taking Chance,” and it chronicles the journey of the remains of Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps and his escort, Lt. Col. Mike Strobl.

Strobl penned the story after he accompanied Phelps’ body to his hometown of Dubois, WY. It’s an emotional story to read; but it’s even more emotional to watch. 

Phelps, 20, was killed in action on April 9, 2004  (Good Friday) outside Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Strobl’s essay  “Taking Chance” became a popular story after being picked up on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Strobl tells of the dignity and respect given the remains of Pfc. Phelps all along the way — from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware all the way to the five-hour drive from Billings, Mont., to the funeral home in Wyoming. 

Strobl tells of the care and prayers Phelps and his family received beginning when the personnel in Dover received his remains.  The care and detail that went into preparing the remains, the uniform, the care of Phelps’ personal effects. 

Most striking and humbling was the gratitude, respect and concern Strobl found along the way as people became aware of what he was doing. Every time the casket was loaded on or off an airplane, personnel and travelers stopped and bowed their heads. All along the way, people of all walks of life comforted Strobl and thanked him for his service. 

“I want you to know that your family does not mourn alone today,” Strobl told Phelps’ family when he met them. And, it was true.  Everyone seemed to understand the solemn undertaking Strobl had, and they wanted to be a part of it, in some way — through prayers, through comforting the Marine officer or by following the hearse as a make-shift funeral procession on a two-lane highway through the mountains of Montana and Wyoming. 

Since President Barack Obama has lifted the ban on news coverage of the return of the war dead, I believe more Americans will come to understand the gravity of what our men and women are tasked with in protecting our freedom. Honoring our war dead shouldn’t be a political issue, and most Americans don’t see it that way. 

Strobl’s story doesn’t tell of political comment on the war. His story doesn’t describe Democratic or Republican views on whether the war is justified.  Strobl’s story is one of personal witness. With the lifting of this ban, more Americans can take part in the same kind of personal witness of respect and of death and of the American family that mourns every single loss in war.