Lt. Col. Michael Strobl addresses the crowd of 900 people gathered in the Dubois (Wyo.) High School gymnasium Wednesday before the local screening of the HBO movie "Taking Chance." Strobl escorted the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps to his family's home in Dubois, Wyo., which is the basis for the film.

Dubois Frontier/courtesy

Lt. Col. Michael Strobl addresses the crowd of 900 people gathered in the Dubois (Wyo.) High School gymnasium Wednesday before the local screening of the HBO movie "Taking Chance." Strobl escorted the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps to his family's home in Dubois, Wyo., which is the basis for the film.

'Taking Chance' premieres on HBO

To watch

"Taking Chance" premieres at 6 p.m. today on HBO. Check your cable or satellite provider for local channel listings.

About 900 people filled the gym of Dubois High School in Dubois, Wyo., on Wednesday, waiting for the public screening of "Taking Chance" to begin.

The stands were full with local residents and others who traveled various distances across the American landscape to be there.

The film they came to watch would chronicle U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl's own journey to the small, rural town in 2004. It will premiere to the rest of the country at 6 p.m. today on HBO.

Almost five years ago, Strobl volunteered to escort the body of Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps - who lived in Craig from ages 5 to 17 - back to his family's current home in Wyoming. Phelps, 19, had been fatally shot April 9, 2004, while defending a military convoy in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

Phelps died helping to protect U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who was in the Dubois High School gym Wednesday, standing close to Phelps' family. Strobl was there, as well, having made a new sojourn to Dubois for the screening.

It was a good moment, said Phelps' mother, Gretchen Mack, but she couldn't bear to relive her son's death again.

"I couldn't sit through the screening," she said. "As soon as it started, I left."

The film, based on a journal Strobl kept as he escorted Phelps to Wyoming, has not brought Mack any closure.

But she has found some reassurance through it all.

"There really isn't any closure," Mack said. "It does bring some degree of comfort just knowing what goes on behind the scenes with our military and how it works when they bring someone home."

It's good to know her son was cared for, Mack said, and she now has deep gratitude for the military servicemen and women who volunteer to escort and care for the bodies of the fallen.

"Most people don't know what they do," she said. "They take care of our fallen heroes."

Tonee Gingrich, Phelps' grandmother who still lives in Craig, would like people watching "Taking Chance" to remember that message, though she said it will be hard for anyone to forget.

"It's got a beautiful message," Gingrich said. "It's very sad - I won't say it isn't - but it's got a message to the American people that our soldiers who come home dead are treated with such respect. It's beautiful."

Strobl and Kelly reinforced that message at the Dubois screening, Gingrich said.

Strobl's father died recently, but he left Grand Junction to be with Phelps' family in Wyoming. Gingrich said her family was honored to have him there Wednesday.

Kelly flew in from Boston, Gingrich added, and treated her and her relatives with the kind of warmth usually only seen in old friends.

"That's the dedication that these people have to fallen soldiers," Gingrich said. "They have become part of our family. They put their lives aside to be there with us."

She also was touched by the "enormous" turnout from local Dubois residents and people she recognized from Craig, Hayden and Maybell.

"It was the same feeling I got at the funeral," Gingrich said. "The closeness. The loving."

Mack said she hopes people will remember the sacrifices made by those who serve in the military for the sake of those who don't.

She also wants other families with members serving overseas and loved ones who died in combat to know they're not alone.

She said she hopes people will understand the message about their country, as well.

"The movie's basically just about America," Mack said. "It's not just about my son. It could have been any service member coming home.

"It's just about how great our people can be, and it's a huge tribute to our military. You just need to help these families if you can. It doesn't take much, sometimes just a pat on the back."

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com.

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