During his 2003 tour in Iraq, Maj. Christopher Phelps sent home a picture from Baghdad, showing him standing in front of a bombed-out building and holding a handmade sign that said, “Dad, wish you were here.”
The Marine Corps is about to oblige.
Both 34-year-old Phelps and his 57-year-old father, Kendall Phelps, have orders to report to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for training, then deploy to Iraq for a seven-month tour.
They’ll serve in the same unit, helping Iraqi officials rebuild their nation.
Both men will leave families behind, Kendall Phelps in Silver Lake, a small town northwest of Topeka, and Christopher Phelps, in Shawnee, a Kansas City suburb. Asked about each others’ safety, both said they trust their fellow Marines.
“In the Marine Corps, every Marine watches every Marine, whether it’s your father, a son, whether it’s a brother, whether it’s just a friend,” Kendall Phelps said.
Still, Kendall Phelps’ wife, Sherma, remembered her husband’s concerns early in 2003, during their son’s first tour. She said he wanted to replace his son there, or at least be with him to provide protection.
“Now they’re both going to be there, so I can just worry about both of them,” she said.
Family deployments called rare
The Marines don’t keep records on how many fathers and sons serve in the same unit, but it’s rare, said Capt. Jeff Landis, a spokesman for the Corps in Quantico, Va.
As part of the 200-member 5th Civil Affairs Group, the Phelpses will help Iraqi officials restart school systems, re-establish local governments, train police and repair infrastructure, said the unit’s commanding officer, Col. Steve McKinley. That job can’t be done until an area is reasonably secure, he said.
“I’ve got the Phelps family counting on me to bring everybody back alive,” McKinley said.
Christopher Phelps has four sons, aged 18 months to 6 years. The youngest, Taigan, was born shortly after his father’s return from his first tour in Iraq.
Wife Lisa said she’s proud of her husband and thinks he’s giving his oldest sons an appreciation of the sacrifices necessary to maintain the American dream. But she acknowledged, “It makes me just scared to death for his children and myself.”
“I’m a Marine Corps wife,” she said. “I get up and get my kids out of bed, and I’ll be strong for him.”
Mixed emotions for family
Kendall Phelps, a retired master gunnery sergeant, has two daughters and three sons, including Christopher, aged 19 to 34. Josh, 21, is living at home while he attends Washburn University in Topeka, and said he has mixed feelings about his father’s departure.
“It’s good for my dad, I think, because he loved the Marine Corps so much,” Josh Phelps said. “But it’s also kind of scary.”
Kendall Phelps joined the Marines straight out of high school in Rock Island, Ill., with six of his buddies. He served 13 months in Vietnam and remembers facing mortar fire on his first day.
He left active duty in 1968 but later joined the reserves, hitting 30 years’ total service in 1999, when retirement was required. He also became a teacher, spending most of his career in Silver Lake, where his home is across from the high school.
His decision after Sept. 11, 2001, to put his name on a list of retirees who wanted to return to active duty didn’t surprise Principal Larry Winter.
“He lives and breathes it,” Winter said of Phelps’ feelings for the Corps.
Christopher Phelps said: “It’s pretty hard to argue with that, with a guy who wants to stand up and make a difference. In a lot of ways, I felt the same way.”
Christopher Phelps also joined the Marines out of high school, serving in his father’s reserve unit while attending the University of Kansas. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1994, he spent five years on active duty. He went back into the reserves until the terrorist attacks led him to again seek active duty.
That led to his 2003 tour in Iraq and his joking photo to Dad. Christopher Phelps said he meant it as a greeting, similar to what tourists put on their post cards, but, “Now, it’s kind of ironic.”