2004. Over a black screen, we hear the sound of radio transmissions, an explosion, and frenetic gunfire. The outcome of the skirmish becomes clear when two uniformed Marines arrive at the Phelps home in Dubois, WY, in the middle of the night. Lance Corporal Chance Phelps has been killed in Iraq.
As the bodies of Chance and several other Marines are iced and packaged at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a Desert Storm vet now working a desk job in Virginia, checks his computer for the names of casualties in Iraq. Recognizing that one victim enlisted in his hometown of Clifton, CO, Strobl offers to be the escort for the body from the time it arrives in the U.S. to its final resting place. Though such a request is unusual for such a high-ranking officer, it is accepted, later, Strobl learns that his destination is not Clifton but Dubois, WY, where Chance’s family now lives.
Leaving his wife and two young children early in the morning, Strobl heads to the Dover Port Mortuary in Delaware, where he and other escorts are briefed on protocol for their respective trips, then wait for the bodies to be prepared, dressed, casketed, and packed into crates for their journeys home. Told that Chance is not yet ready, Strobl joins other personnel in “slow saluting” as bodies are shipped out, then spends a reflective night in a hotel. The next day, after receiving Chance’s personal effects (a watch, two dogtags, a wooden cross, and a letter from his platoon commander), Strobl begins his journey, carefully checking the ID on the shipping container (which he will do on each leg) as it’s loaded into a van. During the trip to Philadelphia, he chats with the young civilian driver, who never enlisted but knew two friends who did; one died and the other was wounded. The driver feels that he’s giving something back to young men like his friends, who gave so much to their country.
At the airport, Strobl is upgraded to First Class by a sympathetic clerk, then gets a hand check by Security after refusing to put Chance’s personal items through the conveyer belt, or take off his own jacket. At the terminal, under the gaze of a pair of enthralled children, Strobl verifies Phelps’ crate on the tarmac, saluting as it is loaded into the plane while baggage handlers remove their hats in a sign of respect. During the flight to Minneapolis, Stobl drinks water and sits upright as others around him sleep. When a flight attendant approaches and gives him a small gold cross, his stoic veneer cracks.
In Minneapolis, Strobl commiserates with an escort he met in Dover, a young Army sergeant who is taking his brother’s body home. Later, Strobl asks if he can remain with Chance in the hangar instead of going to a hotel, and is given a folding chair and bedroll for his vigil. The next morning, as Chance is loaded into another plane, Strobl meets the pilot, who says he flew A10s in Desert Storm, and has been honored to know the names of every KIA he’s transported as a civilian. During the flight, Strobl banters with a young woman, who never realizes his purpose until the pilot makes an announcement after landing in Billings, CO.
As Chance is loaded out, the woman and other passengers watch, full of emotion, as Strobl offers up another slow salute. Met by Gary, a funeral-home rep, and with a fivehour drive ahead of him, Stobl removes the packaging in a hangar, and drapes one of two American flags over the casket (both flags will be delivered to Chance’s parents, who are divorced). He then follows in a rental car while Gary drives the casket across the countryside. Along the way, several trucks and cars join in an impromptu motorcade, their headlights illuminated in honor of Chance.
In Dubois, Strobl meets Mike Thompson, one of the two Marines who notified the family of Chance’s death. In an emotional moment, Gary raises the lid of the coffin, and Stobl checks the body while Mike places a note under Chance’s crossed hands. Though this will be a closed-casket ceremony, the Dover workers have done an impressive job with Chance, whose six ribbons attest to his valor and bravery.
After checking into his hotel, Strobl heads to the local VFW, which is holding a tribute to Chance. Fraternizing with young and old vets – including a Marine who was with Chance when he was killed – Strobl not only recognizes how much Chance was revered, but how much he wishes he’d re-deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It takes an older vet from Korea, Charlie Fitts, to remind Strobl that what he’s doing is essential: “You’re his witness…without a witness, they just disappear.”
The next day, over a thousand people file into the school gym for Chance’s funeral as Strobl meets the extended family in a classroom. After assuring everyone that Chance’s journey was met with “dignity and respect and honor,” Strobl hands over the personal effects and letter from his commander, leaving the group after giving Chance’s mother the cross the flight attendant had given him. As Chance’s father reads the letter, we see the sights and sounds of Chance’s funeral, the horse-drawn procession of the casket, and the final graveside tributes, ending when Chance’s mother places the flight attendant’s cross on the casket, with his father adding his own medals from Vietnam. His duty completed, Strobl flies home (in coach), and begins writing what will be a defining journal of his experience. “I didn’t know Chance Phelps before he died,” he writes. “But today, I miss him.”