DOVER AFB, Del. - It's been years since retired Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl escorted the remains of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps from Dover Air Force Base to his final resting place in Wyoming. But, as he addressed a crowd gathered for the Delaware USO Gala at Dover Downs, Del., Nov. 17, his voice resonated into the past as if it were only yesterday.
"Chance's was a well-lived life," Strobl told the audience gathered to raise money for the USO.
Strobl wrote a 2004 memoir about escorting Phelps, who was killed in Iraq as the convoy he was escorting came under heavy enemy fire. Strobl's mission as his Marine Corps escort led to the airing of a movie that became one of the most viewed HBO films of all time.
Strobl said when he returned from Wyoming, his wife asked him how the trip had gone. He told her there was so much to say that he needed to write it all down. That night, he went to work.
"Once I started writing," he said, "I couldn't stop. It was as if it was being dictated to me."
When he completed the story, he e-mailed it to a few of his Marine Corps comrades. They sent it to their friends and colleagues, and before he knew it, the story had taken on a life of its own.
"Eventually, I got an e-mail saying, 'Hey, you've got to read this,'" Strobl said, and that's when it dawned on him that the story had gone viral.
His memoir appeared on many Web sites, in books and was included in the 2007 documentary "Operation Homecoming," which was nominated for both an Academy Award and an Emmy. He co-authored the HBO screenplay, which starred Kevin Bacon as Strobl. It was nominated for two Golden Globe awards and 10 Emmys.
Before his speech at the gala, Strobl visited Dover's Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. He was greeted by the mortuary's commander, Air Force Col. John M. Devillier, for an orientation of the mortuary, named for Charles C. Carson, long-time chief of the mortuary.
During his speech, Strobl highlighted the incredible mission performed at AMFAO, which is the country's only port mortuary and the largest for the Defense Department. There have been many changes since Strobl was at Dover in 2004, and the commander gave him an orienation of the facility, briefing him on current operations. One of the changes has been the relocation of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System to Dover AFB last year, which Strobl also toured.
"They have some amazing stories," Strobl said about his visit. "There is a semblance of excellence at Dover on a daily basis. It makes me proud to be an American."
If a mistake is made on the average job in America, we have a chance to correct it the next day and move on, he said. But if a mistake is made at Dover, you cannot say to a grieving family we will correct the mistake tomorrow or the next time. There is no next time, so everything has to be done to perfection, and that's what the personnel at Dover commit themselves to. They know they have to get it right the first time, he said.
Addressing the AFMAO commander and other AFMAO personnel attending the gala, Strobl said, "By doing what you do, you have helped honor lives well lived," he said. "You provide comfort to grieving families."
Back in 2004 when Strobl arrived in Wyoming with Phelps inside of his casket, he was met the local funeral director. Some items needed to go inside the lance corporal's casket, and Strobl inspected his uniform to make sure it was squared away.
The absolute perfection of Chance's uniform, including all his ribbons in place, astounded Strobl. The personnel in the uniform section at Dover knew his body would not be viewable for the funeral services, yet he was dressed ready for an inspection.
"If you know what that takes, to get an inspection ready uniform, you can really appreciate what they do in the uniform shop at Dover," he said.
Here was this Marine looking absolutely perfect because the guys at Dover made Chance's uniform look excellent, he said. "He was immaculate, and this for a Marine they knew was not to be viewed. The family never saw that.
"That's all you need to know about their dedication to the fallen at the Carson mortuary," Strobl said.
Changing subjects, Strobl talked fondly about the USO in Oceanside, Calif., where he was stationed at the beginning of his Marine Corps career in 1984. He was 18 years old, and like a lot of young Marines, he was a long way from home and didn't know anyone. Homesickness can take its toll on a Marine and his job, he said.