'No Man Left Behind' statues hold special meaning for Marines
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — With every stroke of sculptor John Phelps’ steady hand, the clay began to take shape.
First, there was a skeleton that soon began to look more and more like one Marine in uniform; then there were three. Before long, their faces twisted and contorted to depict the horrors of combat.
The nonprofit veteran service organization Hope for the Warriors commissioned Phelps to immortalize the now-iconic “Hell House” photo taken by Lucian Read during the battle for Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
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The photo depicted two Marine lance corporals carrying a bloodied 1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal out of a house following a firefight inside. Kasal had been shot and peppered with shrapnel when he protected a fellow Marine from a grenade blast.
Nearly unconscious from loss of blood and unable to support his own weight, he still carried a pistol in his right hand and his Ka-Bar knife in his left. The photo came to symbolize the brutality of the fighting and the spirit of the Marines who sacrificed themselves for their brothers.
For Phelps, preserving the image in bronze was more than just another job. His son, Marine Pfc. Chance Phelps, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor after he was killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004. His journey home was depicted in the 2009 HBO film “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon.
Dubbed “No Man Left Behind,” the first cast of the statue was unveiled outside the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East Hope and Care Center at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 2013. A second was erected in front of the Wounded Warrior Complex of the Wound Warrior Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in November.
With no national monument yet commemorating America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the statues have become a pilgrimage site of sorts for Marines getting promoted or retiring.
“Marines like to retire in front of the monument because, for many, it represents their own experience when they were injured on the field of battle,” said Craig Stephens, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and command adviser to the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Lejeune. “Someone carried them off the battlefield.”
Hope for the Warriors president Robin Kelleher agreed.
“We do see this as the monument to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “It is the gift of a Gold Star father. It tells the Marines’ story.”
Chris Marquez, one of the Marines who braved enemy fire to get Kasal and others out of the house, is depicted in the statue to Kasal’s right. Now a college student who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2014, he attended the Pendleton unveiling.
A troublemaker in high school, he found his calling when he enlisted in the Marines in 2003, saying it was “the best choice I’ve ever made.”
Marquez arrived in Iraq with Company K of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Division, in March 2004. His unit was ordered in November to retake Fallujah — clearing it house by fortified house. The bloodiest battle in Iraq has drawn comparisons with some of the heaviest urban combat of Vietnam.
Marquez recalls ambushes and intense firefights in homes and alleyways with an enemy that melted into the local populace. When the Marines lost friends, they dragged the bodies out of harm’s way. They couldn’t stop and mourn; they had to keep fighting.
“It was a huge operation,” Marquez recalled. “It was nonstop. We didn’t sleep but for an hour here or an hour there. We didn’t want to give the enemy time to move. It was pretty stressful. My squad got lit up. Everyone was in their own little firefights.”
On Nov. 13, Marquez was on standby, part of a quick-reaction force. He was getting ready to take a nap when the call for help came.
Elements of a Marine platoon had been ambushed by about a dozen enemies from an elevated position as they entered a house. Some were able to make it out. Others were pinned down inside; Kasal’s Navy Cross citation says he joined a squad to rescue them.
Kasal eliminated an enemy insurgent in the first room. As he moved toward a wounded Marine in the next room, he and another Marine were raked in the legs by rifle fire. Then the grenades rained down; Kasal shielded the other wounded Marine with his own body.
Marquez and Lance Cpl. Dane Schaffer arrived on the scene. Their platoon commander had a plan: The two men would shed their gear, including rifles, then run in and out of the kill zone, extracting casualties one by one as other Marines provided cover fire.
It sounds crazy, but Marquez says he had complete faith in his leadership.
“If he had told me to go through the gates of hell, I would have gone with complete confidence,” he said.
One Marine looked like he might lose his leg, so he was carried out on a poncho, Marquez recalled, adding: “Everybody was shot up pretty bad.”
Kasal refused to leave until everyone else was extracted. He stayed in the prone position, still holding security.
“He had lost so much blood,” Marquez said. “He looked like he was going to pass out.”
After Marquez and Schaffer carried Kasal outside, the house was blown up with all of the enemies still inside.
Labor of love
The impetus for the statues can be traced back to 2007, Kelleher said. Hope for the Warriors’ mission is to offer programs and support to servicemembers and their families. It had started a campaign to raise money for facilities at Lejeune and Pendleton that would mirror the Center for the Intrepid in San, Antonio,Texas, which promotes research and provides cutting-edge rehabilitation for wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and educational opportunities for Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs employees.
The Marine Corps said it would request funding for the facilities, and Hope for the Warriors donated its plans for the buildings.
Leftover funds were offered back to the donors, who agreed instead to use the money for a statue at Lejeune. In 2009, the project was offered to Phelps, a Vietnam veteran as well as an accomplished painter and sculptor.
In summer 2002, Phelps won a contest to sculpt the Fremont County Veterans World War II Memorial in Wyoming, a 9-foot sculpture that featured a soldier in solemn reflection before a cross bearing a fallen comrade. Just before he shipped out, Chance Phelps posed for the sculpture.
“He was one of the funniest and wittiest human beings I have ever known,” Phelps said of his son. “He was wise beyond his years. He was exactly what the Marine Corps looks for in a young man, that’s for sure.”
Phelps wanted to capture his son’s spirit when he took on the “No Man Left Behind” statue.
“My son joined the Marine Corps as a direct result of 9/11,” he said. “He joined out of his patriotism and love of the United States of America, but he died for those Marines, and I understand that. It was another way to honor the Marine Corps.”
Phelps was meticulous in his research for “No Man Left Behind.” He talked with countless Marines on their installations: What was that strap? What is in Kasal’s left hand? How would the backs of the soldiers have looked?
The statue stands about 10 feet tall and 13 feet wide.
Phelps beamed with pride when it was unveiled at Camp Lejeune. Shortly thereafter, Camp Pendleton wanted a statue as well.
The Gold Star dad dreams of a 30-foot version on the National Mall in Washington D.C., a testament to his son and all of the fallen Marines and everyone else who served. Soon, the public will be able to purchase a smaller version to raise funds for Hope for the Warriors.
“I hope that this sculpture becomes iconic to commemorate the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts,” Phelps said. “It was a labor of love.”