Robert Stokely on the fifth anniversary of his final reunion with his fallen son and our Hero, SGT Mike Stokely.
An air cargo hanger five years ago....
The hour of 1700 24 Aug eastern daylight time has now come and gone, and all afternoon I watched the clock as I worked. It has now been five years since I stood in an open doorway at an air cargo hanger for US Airways at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport and watched as an Escort Sergeant and the Casualty Assistance Officer uncrated Mike's Casket and drape the American Flag over him, neatly cornering it out and not accepting anything less than perfection.
I stood there, large tears dripping down my cheeks onto my coat, tie and dress shirt, trying to give a proper salute to Mike, an untrained civilian whose hand trembled against my forehead, my chest aching pain of a grieving heart. An office full of workers whose day was like any other suddenly realized what was happening and froze and stared. They were to say the least, aghast having been caught by surprise at the moment. As the Escort Sergeant and CAO satisfied themselves Mike's Flag was properly draped, they turned and looked at me, nodding with approval and I released my salute as they slid his Flag Draped Casket into the waiting hearse. I walked outside needing fresh air, but more importantly to call my wife Retta, as I had come alone. As she answered the phone I simply said "Our Boy is Home" and then the tears became a sob in unison as she sobbed from the other end. After a few moments I got in the hearse and rode the 30 plus miles to the funeral home, where Mike's mom and other dad were waiting and he would stay overnight, unannounced so the community could be given notice the next day and have their desired opportunity to welcome Mike home. It was the best we could do with just a two hour call block he was coming in.
Mike's Flag Draped Casket was just inches over my shoulder as we traveled many of the same roads he and I traveled over the years as I went back and forth with him on weekend, holiday and summer visitation trips between his mom's home and my home. Many moments of remembering, whether singing a goofy song, yelling up at our favorite local traffic copter announcer (Scott Slade who Mike called Scott Wade as a little boy), eating at a Burger King with a playground, visiting a game ranch where Mike once had to rescue his younger brother Wes from a somewhat aggressive small deer. Every mile was a memory, and yet another moment for a broken heart to ache even more.
It was a long ride but not nearly long enough, and over too soon and then, it was time to share him with others.... It was my Last Ride to Take My Boy Home. It is burned in my memory as vividly as scenes on film captured on DVD. As I go monthly or more often to tend Mike's grave and visit him I travel by Hartsfield just eyeball distance from that Air Cargo Hanger on a monthly basis, sometimes more often, as well as many of the same highways we traveled that moment in time five years ago. I never fail to look over going and coming and feel that moment and remember my first glimpse of my Boy's Flag Draped Casket, and I never want to forget the pain, for to hurt deep you had to love deep.
People ask me about Mike, how I am doing, and sometimes how I cope and I like that, for it means they Remember Him. I tell them I will die with a broken heart, but I choose to live with as much joy as possible, for God gives us life, and my Boy would want me to go on and live as full and happy a life as possible. I owe it to God and my Boy and it is the least I can. And in a selfish way, it is my sticking it back to those who killed Mike, my way of taunting them and saying you hurt us bad but you failed to take us all out and we will now stand up and we will not cower, we will not retreat, we will not blame in bitterness and WE WILL REMEMBER MIKE WITH HONOR.
I openly say that those who killed Mike and would rob our country of freedom would have been better off to have left him alone, for they awoke an entire family, community and many new friends around the world. Those who killed Mike failed, and he won. Mike and our family are not the only ones they failed with, for the Families of the Fallen in the War on Terror, even though knocked to their knees, as a whole, rose again to stand as tall as they might, joined by millions of supporters at home and hundreds of thousands of fellow soldiers and their families who stayed engaged, some many deployments over, even knowing what could happen.
Cut and Run was not a strategy, option or path to victory. Duty, Honor, Country, and might I now add Sacrifice, was! When others called to leave, those who really counted said no, I will go, some again and again, and many more gave their lives, while others had their lives altered in many ways. One in particular is SFC Mark Allen who served with Mike. Upon his redeployment from Iraq in 2006, he had a safe full time job at the State level with the Georgia Army National Guard. In mid 2008, when he got wind that a lot of his Iraq battle buddies, now with Bravo 2/121 of the 48th GAARNG were likely going to get orders in the coming year to deploy to Afghanistan, he demanded his way out of the safe job and into Bravo 2/121. I shall never forget on the 3rd anniversary gathering at Mike's grave, Mark and his wife came as they had the previous two years, and brought their one month old daughter and stood in the hot evening sun. He told me of his plans and hope to have orders to join Bravo 2/121 in a month or so. I was the unit's Family Readiness Chairperson and a month later at the Armory, which is near my work, in he pops and says its official "I'm here."
Mark and his wife weren't with us at the fourth anniversary gathering, and a few days before I visited them at Bethesda where Mark lay in a coma from a serious gunshot wound and brain injury sustained in a fierce firefight where his squad encountered overwhelming enemy forces and fire on July 8, 2009, just a month into his Afghan deployment. I looked at Mark's wife as she cooed to him and stroked his arm telling him I was there. I choked back tears and mumbled "You all have to be the bravest folks I know because you saw up close and personal what happened to us, yet you went again." Mark Allen has only recently began to make the first simple steps of cognitive recognition, but they are steps that the odds didn't support were possible. And you know what, if he could get out of the bed, he would go again.
And there are so many more like the Allens. There are more of the Allens than the "others" who want to slurp at the fountain of freedom but who don't want to do any lifting, much less the heavy lifting, and when it gets tough are the first to call for cut and run. It is because of those like the Allens that we will endure, we will prevail and we will live free.
And it is because of those like the Allens, the Chuck Zs, Greyhawks, Blackfive, Thunderrun, They have Names, Patti Patton-Bader and her entire SA organization too many to mention, as well as so many others that space and time can not measure, that my broken heart can rest gently on their support and endure with assurance that what Mike did mattered and what he gave will be Remembered with Honor. And I have to think thus it is so for the many like me. What a blessing to live among such great people in such a great country.
DUTY HONOR COUNTRY
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely, Bronze Star and Purple Heart
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah Iraq
US Army E 108 CAV 48th BCT GAARNG