MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Building 1460, commonly known as the 7th Marines mess hall, was renamed Phelps Hall during a ceremony in front of the facility May 4.
The renaming was in honor of Lance Cpl. Chance R. Phelps, an artilleryman with 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, who was killed in action by a gunshot wound April 9, 2004, during combat operations west of Baghdad, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
During the deployment, Phelps performed duties as an M240G medium machine gunner for 2nd Platoon, Lima Battery, 3/11. He was riding in the turret of a humvee during a convoy operation. His detail from 2nd Platoon was tasked with providing convoy escort to the assistant division commander. That evening, the convoy was hit with an improvised explosive device, which detonated approximately 100 meters in front of the convoy and caused the lead vehicle to slow down. The convoy was then immediately engaged with a high volume of accurate machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire from three positions roughly 200 meters away behind covered areas.
The lead vehicle was caught in the kill zone and all three occupants of the vehicle were almost immediately wounded. As Phelps’ driver moved his vehicle to a position of advantage, Phelps immediately began to suppress the enemy in order to relieve pressure from the Marines in that vehicle.
Exposing himself to a high volume of enemy fire, Phelps continued to fire his weapon effectively, as the enemy shifted their position. His fires were crucial to relieving pressure from his comrades so they could better engage the enemy, and convoy leaders could call for a quick reaction force and close air support.
As the initial engagement ensued, the Marines in Phelps’ vehicle were preparing to dismount in order to better support the Marines in need of assistance. Phelps’s was mortally wounded just as they dismounted.
For his bravery and heroism during the heat of the battle, that saved his fellow Marines’ lives and cost him his own, Phelps was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat “V” posthumously.
Phelps, who was operating at the rank of private first class during the deployment, was also posthumously promoted to lance corporal.
Joining and participating in the mess hall dedication was Phelps’ family. His mother, father and sister unveiled the bronze memorial, which was mounted on a large stone, and the mess hall’s new sign, “Phelps Hall.”
Many came to honor the life of Phelps during the mess hall dedication, which included some of Phelps’ fellow platoon members and Brig. Gen. John F. Kelly, who was the assistant division commander at the time of the convoy escort.
“I look at this day as a privilege to honor a fallen lance corporal,” said Kelly. “It was a tragic situation. Combat: if you haven’t been there, you can’t understand what it’s like. I never saw a single Marine hesitate that day. Lance Cpl. Phelps stood his ground until he went down. His valor was the most amazing sight to see, especially when another Marine took his place.
After returning back to their base, Phelps’ unit stood proud and tall to serve in the same dreadful area alongside Phelps, said Kelly. His fellow platoon members spent a few quiet moments and told stories of him.
To the Marines and others who knew him best, Phelps was a very popular person. His sister, Kelley Orndoff, said he was a star athlete in high school. He made people smile and loved attention.
More so, he was always motivated, said Sgt. James G. Cooper, Phelps’ vehicle commander during the convoy operation.
“He was the classic, tough and funny guy,” said Cooper. “He always had a crowd around him wherever he went. He was always in a good mood and always trying to motivate everyone around him.
“Everyone liked him,” he continued. “It was hard not to smile when he was telling one of his stories. It hit everyone pretty hard when he was killed. I was shocked. But we stuck together and kept his memory alive whenever we went back into operations and fought hard.
“I think it’s great that the chow hall is named after Phelps,” said Cooper. “It’s a great honor. I hope that everyone stays motivated around here and thinks of him, his parents, and their call of duty when they eat chow here. I only wish Phelps was here to eat chow with me again.”
As the life of Chance Phelps ended that tragic afternoon on the battlefield, his story continued. His life has affected many people, including Lt. Col. Michael R. Strobl, a volunteer escort of Phelps’ remains back to his hometown in Dubois, Wyo. Strobl wrote an account of his experience delivering Phelps to his hometown where he was buried. His journey lasted several days where he grew a close connection to the spirit of Phelps and to the love of Phelps’ family.
“Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him,” read the opening paragraph of his story.
Strobl also joined the ceremony by speaking to the guests and service members.
“Today I am filled with pride… pride in taking Chance Phelps home, pride in the Marine Corps and pride in our nation,” said Strobl.
Chance was a man who watched the cowardly attacks of 9/11 and stood up and said, “I’m going to do something about this,” said Strobl.
“I hope you take some comfort that great warriors will come to Phelps Hall to continue the legacy,” added Stroble.
Aside from a motivated Marine filled with camaraderie, Phelps was also strong member of his family, said his mother, Gretchen Mack.
“Chance lived life more in his 19 years than I think any of us in his family did,” she said. “Our healing process is us telling stories about his comedy, his personality and his relationships with girls. He also used to imitate California’s governor, Arnold, really well. When people had a bad time, he would take that moment and turn it into a ‘Chance moment.’”
“Dedicating the mess hall to Chance is a good way to honor any service member and their families. Honoring him today represents honoring a lost Marines, Soldiers or Sailors in general. He represents all the lost lives and all the families who have lost a loved one.”
Phelps’ father, John, had similar feelings.
“Dedicating the chow hall to a fallen Marine is a great opportunity to show patriotism,” said John. “This is like a footnote, or afterthought, of the war. And this fits the person he is and his style. It’s very honorable how he died. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
To have the mess hall named in memory and dedication of Phelps was pushed by battalion leaders and their predecessors. Many did not know Phelps personally, but most knew his story, said Lt. Col. Douglas H. Fairfield, commanding officer of 3/11.
“We invested an interest in our own,” said Fairfield. “After reading Lt. Col. Strobl’s story, I had the opportunity to meet [Phelps]’ mother at our Marine Corps Ball. I was very impressed with how genuine his family is and how supportive they are of the battalion. After hearing that the base wanted to rename the mess hall, Phelps’ name immediately came to mind. With the help of many Marines and the commanding general of the base, we were able to dedicate the mess hall to Chance.
“This does not just represent 3/11, but it represents every Marine,” continued Fairfield. “There are several thousands who went through the same situation Phelps did, from private to lance corporal. He represents their stories. Personally, I am inspired for what he did, and others are too.
“I know there’s a Chance Phelps in every one of us,” said Fairfield. “I understand his confidence he had in Iraq, and we all share that same understanding. Chance is not a hero because he died, but because he lived. He chose to make a commitment in which our nation honors. I am pleased to dedicate this mess hall in his name.”