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thedrifter
12-06-05, 07:28 AM
Dad and son Marines facing flak on Iraq
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
By P.J. Huffstutter Los Angeles Times

SHAWNEE, Kan. Since Chris Phelps, 35, returned from his second tour in Iraq in October, he has tried to ignore the debate about the war in Congress and the media. He stopped reading newspapers. He won’t watch the news on TV. He turned off the news radio channel in the car.

His father, Kendall Phelps, 58, is doing the same thing.

The two Marines, who served in the same unit in Iraq, came home a few weeks ago. But after President Bush’s recent speech about the future of the military in the Middle East, the men say that home has become a more conflicted place than when they boarded planes for the Al Anbar province nine months ago. For two men who believe strongly in the cause, the political brouhaha is baffling.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we’re doing over there,” Chris said. “But there’s such conflict. The government told us this was our patriotic duty to be there. Now, there’s talk about backing off before the mission’s done.

“If we can’t finish what we went over there for, then why do this in the first place? It’d be foolish for us to leave now.”

BROTHERS IN ARMS

Not long ago, life seemed far simpler.

Kendall Phelps, a Vietnam veteran and high school music teacher in Silver Lake, retired from the Marine Reserve in 1999, when military rules required him to leave after 30 years’ service.

When his son Chris was sent on his first Iraq tour in 2003, Kendall swore he would persuade the Marine Reserve to take him back and allow him to fight by his son’s side. In an unusual move, prompted in part because of Kendall’s teaching background, the Marines agreed.

The men departed for Iraq within days of each other. Kendall Phelps left behind four other grown children, six grandchildren and Sherma, 57, his wife of 37 years. Chris Phelps said goodbye to his wife, Lisa, and four small boys, now ages 7 and younger.

The men were assigned to the 5th Civil Affairs Group, whose mission was to help Iraqis open schools, train police, build roads and set up local governments. Reservists, drawn from a nationwide pool, dominated the 193-member unit. During its seven-month tour in Iraq, at least six Marines were injured and one officer was killed.

In their recently completed tour, Chris spent his days on security patrols to Fallujah; snipers in Ramadi routinely shot at Kendall.

Upon Chris and Kendall’s return, the excitement of their being home was quickly followed by questions.

AN ABOUT FACE

“After the first tour, I came back to people slapping me on the back in congratulations,” Chris said. “Now, people are still slapping me on the back. The next thing out of their mouth is, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for us to leave?’ ”

Neighbors and friends held parades and parties to honor the Phelpses in their hometown of Silver Lake, about 75 miles west of Kansas City. And they asked: Haven’t you given enough? Risked enough?

Again and again, the men answered that they were not giving anything more, or anything less, than any other Marine.

Chris has tried to reach out to the community, speaking to local schools and volunteer organizations in an effort to explain why he believes the military shouldn’t pull out of Iraq just yet.

On a recent evening inside an elementary school cafeteria near his home in Shawnee, Chris talked to several dozen Cub Scouts and their parents about his experiences.

He told them how the Iraqis were excited about the idea of holding elections. How Iraqi children attend schools with no blackboards, no books and no playgrounds. How children played in the streets, despite the danger of sniper fire.

“We promised these people that we would help them change their country,” Chris said. “When you make a promise, it’s important that you keep it. We need to be there and finish what we’ve started.”

A somber-faced boy in the back raised his hand, and asked, “What started the war? Why are we there?”

Chris opened his mouth to answer, but no words came. He quickly changed the subject.

The military has said it would welcome having Kendall , a master gunnery sergeant, and Chris, a major, voluntarily head back to Iraq in the spring.

ANOTHER ON THE WAY

If the two men return, they may encounter another family member: Joshua Phelps, 22, Chris’ younger brother, is applying to the Marines’ officer training program.

When Joshua told his dad and brother about his decision to sign up, Chris and Kendall were torn. They were proud that Joshua would honor his family tradition and support his country. But neither could tell the enthusiastic young recruit about the horrors he could face.

“How do I explain what you have to experience firsthand?” Chris said. “He’s old enough to make his own decisions. He’s old enough to do this.”

Josh let his father break the news to the rest of the family.

“Things were finally getting back to normal, and now this,” said Sherma. “I don’t want to think about the future.”

Kendall contacted the Marine Corps to see if there was a way he could remain in the service — but not return to Iraq.

“It would be too hard on Sherma to have all three of us gone,” Kendall said. “It’s too much to ask, too big of a risk.”

Ellie