Portrait of Chance Phelps, by John Phelps

By Bob Bahr

In April 2004, Michael R. Strobl, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, escorted home the body of a fallen soldier named Chance Phelps. Chance was killed in action near Ar Ramadi, in Iraq. (Firsthand accounts say that Phelps volunteered for the mission that day as a way of taking care of his fellow soldiers. It wasn’t the first time Phelps offered to fill a slot on a dangerous convoy escort for this reason.) The trip from Iraq to Dubois, Wyoming–Chance’s hometown–moved Strobl to write an essay about the journey for the San Francisco Chronicle. Strobl later lengthened the essay, and it eventually came to life as an HBO film titled “Taking Chance.”

With that film, Chance Phelps became more than a fallen hero—he became a symbol and a shining example of the best of us.

Chance’s father, John Phelps, is an original SKBer, a Wyoming sculptor, painter, cowboy, and Vietnam veteran. Since losing his son, Phelps has honored his son’s life in dozens of ways, and his work has pulled him further into the military world. “It keeps his name alive,” John says about Chance. “I think of all things that have happened since that day, all the positive things, and especially the movie becoming famous, while so many others came home and they were buried with just a few people there to witness it. I’m very grateful that Strobl wrote that essay.”

John Phelps painting at Jakey’s Fork

Most recently, John flew from Cody to Houston for an announcement regarding the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. It seems that somehow Jim Parkman, the Chairman of the Board for the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation, had heard about the scholarship foundation. Parkman decided to donate a substantial amount to a scholarship fund in Chance’s name. In April, Joel Parkman invited John Phelps down to Houston to meet with Jim and officials from the scholarship foundation. Medal of Honor recipient and foundation spokesperson Dakota Meyer, and the wife of Gen. John F. Kelly, Karen, were also in attendance. The Kellys are Gold Star parents as well, having lost their son Robert Michael in the Afghanistan war in 2010.

It was all a bit sudden for John. “I was surprised to see the Marine Corps people there in Jim’s office,” says Phelps. “And Jim has quite an art collection.” While in Texas, Phelps enjoyed some quality time with Jim and Joel, taking in the Van Gogh exhibit (which, unsurprisingly, failed to impress Phelps), eating abundant amounts of crawdads, and enjoying Jim’s cooking of some steaks and quail. “We also burned up a lot of ammunition shooting paper grizzly bears on Jim’s ranch,” Phelps reports.

Phelps had the opportunity to share with the Parkmans his idea for a new piece. John plans to paint an oil painting for the Boston branch of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. His concept is to depict Christmas Eve 1914 during World War I when Allied forces heard the German soldiers on the other side of the battle line singing Christmas carols, and they walked into No Man’s Land singing carols themselves. The infantrymen exchanged holiday greetings, souvenirs, and even played a bit of soccer. John intends the piece to be auctioned off for scholarship funds.

Phelps is working on more sculptures for military bases, all the while painting pictures for high-profile events such as the Charlie Russell show in Great Falls, Montana. But as anyone who knows John knows, Chance is never far from his mind. Phelps is clearly appreciative of the good deeds done in his son’s name.

Dubois Cemetery

“When some Marine family applies for a scholarship—and there will be several of them given in Chance’s name–it keeps his memory alive,” says John. “He is not forgotten.” Ω

For more information on the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, click here.