In 1999, Moffat County High School teacher Paula Duzik taught English to a bright, outgoing sophomore with a memorable smile.
He eventually would be known as Private First Class Chance Phelps.
On Wednesday, MCHS students walked the same hallways Phelps once did, only it was Veterans Day and their footsteps were heavy with the memory and message of the fallen solider.
As part of the first Veterans Day celebration at the high school, the student body sat through a screening of an HBO movie depicting the emotional return of the young soldier’s body to his family in Dubois, Wyo., entitled “Taking Chance.”
Phelps lived in Craig from kindergarten until 11th grade, when he moved to Palisade.
He joined the Marine Corps upon graduation, motivated by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
On Good Friday in 2004, in a small town south of Baghdad, Phelps was escorting a convoy that came under heavy fire. He refused to be evacuated and continued to man his post and cover the other troops. He was fatally wounded at age 20.
Years later, Phelps’ story played on a projector screen in the dark MCHS auditorium. There were audible sobs from teachers who taught Phelps, those who had only seen him pass by in the hallways, and students who felt a connection to his story.
“He was funny,” said Duzik, now a counselor at the high school. “He could talk you into just anything. He was very serious about the military, but at the same time, he was kind of lighthearted about everything. I think he would have thought it was awesome that these kids here were really feeling the impact.”
In Joy Tegtman’s social studies class, the students filled out an evaluation about the Veterans Day event and talked about the movie, which for most students was the most touching part of an already somber day.
“It was a good movie, but it was really sad,” freshman Aaron Shaffer said.
Shaffer attended Maybell Elementary, where Phelps’ mother, Gretchen Mack, worked as a teacher’s aide.
Shaffer remembered Phelps as an outgoing young man and said Phelps would have wanted today’s MCHS students to take something away from his story.
“I think he would have wanted us to try and take away the good from each day and not the bad,” Shaffer said. “I haven’t seen Gretchen in a while, but if saw her, I would tell her how sorry I was and tell her I wish I could help, if I could.”
Freshman Dakota Lee didn’t know Phelps personally, but she said she was motivated and inspired by the movie.
“It makes it real,” she said. “You think about the material things and how they’re over there fighting, but you don’t think about what it takes to go through something like that.”
Her friend, Kyla Warne, whose sister was close with Phelps, was moved to tears by the thought of soldiers dying overseas for their country.
“I realized I wasn’t thinking about them enough,” she said. “And that there is a way I can thank them, and that’s by going over there and fighting with them.”
Both Warne and Lee said they planned to enlist for military service after they leave high school.
Although she understood the dangers, Warne said she couldn’t see any other way to show her support for soldiers like Phelps who gave their lives.
“It was good to know he did it for a good reason, and that he died for his friends and the troops,” she said.
Still, not all MCHS students expressed reaction to the Phelps story in the same way.
Senior Jenn Collier said she never considered herself patriotic and didn’t often think about the actions of veterans at home or overseas.
She said she was surprised to learn how many people in the community take pride in their military and country.
“I didn’t think so many people thought about this stuff all the time,” she said. “But I think I respect that people put their lives on the line because it’s something I could never do. I might not be the most patriotic person, but I respect them a lot.”
Duzik said she saw each of the students affected by something they learned throughout the Veterans Day event.
“Even adults sometimes take it for granted,” she said. “They can all learn to be respectful and that freedom isn’t free. Still, it’s a lot to take in for one day.”
Before the final bell rang Wednesday in Tegtman’s class, Lee and Warne still were fighting the emotions that had built throughout the day.
“It makes me proud,” Lee said about the effect “Taking Chance” had on her and her classmates. “It makes me motivated. I mean, it was just one person and look, it affected us all.”