Not forgotten

Art exhibit honors those who have died while serving their country

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John Phelps had trouble explaining the process of painting a portrait of his son. He had to fight back tears and the lump that crept into the back of his throat.

He talked about losing his son and the pain that just won't go away. He described how proud he is to make the painting but the diffi-culties he still has keeping his composure.

"The whole thing became bittersweet," he said. "It was hard to paint. (I was thinking of) how much I miss him."

He rummaged through old photos and used several to capture the Marine's eyes, smile and spirit. He wanted the portrait to be just right, something that would help his son's patriotism and comedic personality live on.

Pfc. Chance R. Phelps, was shot and killed April 9, 2004, west of Baghdad, Iraq, after the convoy he was protecting was ambushed. Now, Phelps and more than 1,000 servicemen and women who died overseas in recent years are being honored with an art exhibit to be unveiled in Washington, D.C., next week.

Phelps, of Dubois, Wyo., and Chance's mother, Gretchen Mack, formerly of Craig and now of Riverton, Wyo., will be there to see it.

"I just think it's going to be really spectacular," Mack said. "I think it's an awesome tribute."

The group organizing the event requested photos of Chance to give to an artist. That's when John asked whether he could do the portrait. He thinks he's the only family member of those included to create a piece for the exhibit.

"I'm glad that I got the opportunity to do it," John said. "I wish I had time to do more."

Chance's portrait was the only piece John did, though the more than 100 other artists featured in the project did several.

Phelps and Mack will attend a reception for family members and artists March 22, and the exhibit will be opened to the public March 23 at the Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The collection will feature a number of mediums, including drawings, paintings, sculpture, relief, collage and textiles. Servicemen and women remembered are those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to November 2004.

Army Reserves Staff Sgt. Mark Evans Lawton, whose wife Sherri still lives in Hayden, is another of the soldiers being honored.

A Moffat County High School graduate, Lawton, 41, died Aug. 29, 2003, when the military convoy he was traveling with was ambushed near As Suaydat, Iraq. He left behind two young sons.

Mack plans to stay with Lt. Col. Michael Stroble, who brought Chance's body back to Wyoming for burial, and his wife, Stacey, while in D.C. Mack has become friends with the couple and stays in contact with Marines from Chance's platoon, which she thinks helps her find peace with Chance's death.

Phelps, who enlisted while still in high school, was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Pendleton, Calif.

He moved to Craig during grade school and stayed through his junior year at Moffat County High School.

He then transferred to Pali-sade High School.

He was in Iraq one month before his death.

John, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, has devoted much of his time since then to honoring his son.

He is working on a sculpture to be given to donators to the Vietnam Veterans Plaza in New York.

Chance died while John was working on the piece -- a helmet suspended from straps featuring Tiffany glass, a clock and written excerpts from Vietnam veterans -- so the prize was named the Chance Phelps Memorial Award.

John will be there at the end of May, when former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani presents the award for the first time.

Also, the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Lander, Wyo., commissioned John to make a 9-foot World War II memorial sculpture, which Chance posed for. The piece soon will be placed in front of the courthouse there.

A large group of friends, family and supporters walked in Chance's name during the Marine Corps Marathon in November, and John is proud of that.

But, even with all these reminders and dedications made in Chance's name, John still can't escape the pain of losing his son.

"I don't think there will ever be closure," he said quietly.

But Chance's grandparents, John and Tonee Gingrich of Craig, say they find some contentment in knowing Chance's memory will live on.

"So many soldiers have not been honored for saving the rest of our lives," Tonee said, "and they need to be honored. That's what this (exhibit) will do."

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.facesofthefallen.org.

To learn more about Phelps' artwork, go to www.johnphelps.com.

See Phelps talk about his loss and his work on the exhibit on the CBS News on March 22.

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031 or mperry@craig-dailypress.com.

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