Saturday, December 20, 2014

Students sending letters to fallen soldier’s mother

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 12/13/2013

Veterans Day is not just another holiday for Rachel Benbrook.

The Ottawa Middle School teacher wants her students to understand the significance of Nov. 11 for Americans, she said.

Veterans Day is not just another holiday for Rachel Benbrook.

The Ottawa Middle School teacher wants her students to understand the significance of Nov. 11 for Americans, she said.

“I want students to remember Veterans Day, and not just look at it as another day,” Benbrook said of the importance of honoring the men and women who have served the country in the U.S. Armed Services.

For the past five years, Benbrook has marked the day of remembrance by having the sixth-graders in her home room watch the movie “Taking Chance.” The 2009 film is based upon the real-life experiences of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who escorted the body of fallen Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps back to his burial in Dubois, Wyo. The 19-year-old Marine, who was born in Riverton, Wyo., was killed when his convoy came under heavy fire April 9, 2004. Although wounded, Phelps refused to withdraw and used his machine gun to cover the evacuating members of his unit until he was fatally wounded, according to media accounts. Phelps was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and the rank of Lance Corporal.

The family started The Chance Phelps Foundation, which is “dedicated to supporting and honoring our nation’s warriors,” according to the foundation’s website. The foundation organizes assistance and several special events for veterans and their families, the website said. To learn more about the foundation’s work, go to

The movie documenting the fallen soldier’s return home had a profound effect upon Benbrook’s students.

“It was sad, but I thought it was really good,” Landon Reeder, 12, said. “The part I liked most was when [Lt. Col. Strobl] was given a cross, and he [later] gave it to the family because he wanted them to have it.”

After watching the movie, Benbrook’s students penned letters to Chance Phelps’ family.

“I told the family how important their son was, and that he meant a lot to everyone,” Kahlei Crump, 12, said of her letter.

Dysen Batten, 12, shared similar sentiments in his letter to the family.

“I told them he was a brave leader to the United States for what he did,” Dysen said.

In their letters, classmates Justus Noble and Cassidy Williams told the family they were sorry for their loss. Both 12-year-old students have family members who have or are currently serving in the military, they said.

This week the students were putting the final touches on their letters, and Benbrook said she soon would send them to the family.

“I contacted Chance’s mom by email through The Chance Phelps’ Foundation,” Benbrook said. “I told her I would like to send her the letters that my class had written to his family. After a few emails back and forth, his mom asked for my address at the school. She said she wanted to send my class a package.”

Benbrook was not prepared for what she received from the Phelps family in late November.

“I was completely surprised by all that was in the package,” Benbrook, in her sixth year of teaching at OMS, said. “She sent enough T-shirts for my class along with a letter from his family, a book, a copy of the movie ‘Taking Chance,’ information about where Chance was from in Wyoming and information about The Chance Phelps Foundation.”

Kahlei Crump, who said she lost an uncle in Vietnam, was hoping the class might get a letter from the family but never expected to receive a package, she said. Kahlei and the other 20 students in the class all were wearing their Chance Phelps Foundation shirts Thursday at school.

“We were really surprised and very thankful,” Kahlei said of the package.

Benbrook thought a few of her students could relate to what Chance Phelps’ family has gone through because they had lost relatives in different wars, she said, and several more students have had family members serve in the Armed Services who made it home safely.

“I had a great-uncle who went missing in World War II,” Landon Reeder said. “He was a pilot, and he and his plane were never found.”

Benbrook said the Chance Phelps’ story is a touching one of honoring a fallen soldier, and she was so appreciative of the correspondence and package from Phelps’ mother, Gretchen Mack.

“It really touched me that she would take the time to send this package to our class,” Benbrook said. “She doesn’t know anything about Ottawa and our school, but she took the time to do this, and it has meant a lot to our students.”

Benbrook is hopeful the experience will leave a lasting impression on her students and that they always will pause to remember veterans on Veterans Day. Judging by student Justus Noble’s response, Benbrook’s and Taking Chance’s messages rang true.

“I hope Chance’s family is feeling better,” Justus said. “He was very important. It’s really good they put it in a movie.”

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