Many of you figured out who it was that we were transporting to Iraq. Mr. Robert Stokely provides a Thank You and AAR of a sort for you all to read. My deepest gratitude goes out to the amazing men and women of TigerSwan, Delta Airlines, the National Rifle Association and Soldiers' Angels (especially Patti Patton Bader, and Ricky John and the Louisiana angels).
We had to choose a mission commander, someone with deep Iraq experience, a man who knew routes, convoy ops, force protection, and most importantly, could make tough decisions while literally under fire. That man who deserves the most thanks is my friend and brother, Toby Nunn, who we chose to be the Mission Commander. This mission was successful because of him, this is his victory.
Last, I get too much credit for making the impossible happen. I really appreciate Robert's thanks, but really what makes things like this happen is all of you who donated and helped to spread the word. It was, quite simply, the right thing to do.
So our goal was for Robert to find some peace. Did he? Read on and find out for yourself...
It is now 0215 hours 11 Nov 11. I can't sleep. Not unusual this time of the month. The moon waxes full and draws me into being awake. There is enough moon light in the Georgia night to see without artificial light. A little more full than on the night of August 16, 2005 when SGT Mike Stokely was killed by a powerful IED blast on a lonely road near Yusufiyah Iraq. In the earliest moments of being notified of his death a few hours later, I felt immense guilt for not being there to protect him, and even though I could rationalize my feeble ability was not sufficient match for the skill he possessed much less the skill of the team of soldiers at his side that night. I felt even more guilt for not at least being there to hold him in his final moments, if only to offer the same comfort I offered him when I held him in my arms as a sick baby just 23 years before. How did I go from a car seat to a Flag Draped Casket in such a short period of time?
In the week before he was killed, in what was my last goodbye and hearing him say "I love you dad", I had joked I would come see him. Yusufiyah was an awful place full of violence where he and his platoon were vastly outnumbered in the area they patrolled. They were there to disrupt the bomb making insurgents and foreign fighters who were staging bombs into Baghdad and to protect roadways that were vital routes in and out of the south of Baghdad. I remember he said I didn't want to come there, but I told him one day I would. And so it was in those first moments of learning of his death I vowed I would go, I would see where he served, and breathe the air he breathed, see what he saw. I had to do it, and could not rest in peace until I did. I had to give it my best try at the very least for I could not stand the thought of dying and not having tried.
In the few months after his death I was at work on a plan to credential as a media person even though I have no journalistic training much less experience. I had a willing outlet and plans were developing when my sweet 13 year old daughter, Abbey and I were rammed by a car running a stop sign at full speed and we rolled and flipped. Abbey was seriously injured but survived, albeit with injuries that took 18 months to fully recover. A few days later ABC Anchor Bob Woodruff was hit by an IED and seriously wounded, suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury. My wife Retta, a quiet women who is gracious and suffers in silence, could bear the thought nor more and simply implored me not to go, saying "We can't take another tragedy...." So I put it aside, for the time being, but vowing one day I would go to where the Moon over Yusufiyah shines.
Last December I felt the call so strongly I could wait no more. I reached out to Matt Burden at Blackfive and asked for his help in formulating an entry plan. Over the next ten months he worked with many others and Soldiers Angels stepped up to the plate and took financial ownership of the trip. More so, they put skin in the game in the name of a Guardian Angel named Toby Nunn who helped plan and coordinate but whose end game primary role was to accompany and look after me on the trip. Toby has the experience to do so being a multiple tour of duty Veteran of Iraq. Today, he is my dear friend and brother. It would take pages to detail all he has done as it would that of Matt Burden and Soldiers Angels including dear friend Ricky John who is Vice Chair of Soldiers Angels.
Matt started the ball rolling fund raising wise in a post last spring titled it 108 Hours, which helped conceal my identity because of my on-going references to where Mike was killed, Moon over Yusufiyah. I have to tell you raising money for such a project is difficult when you can't really share a lot of info with others. But Matt, Soldiers Angels, a radio host name Chris Krok in Dallas TX and many many many others, especially Ricky John and his friends in Shreveport LA did the job. And ;people like Kevin Moss of Chick-fil-A hooked us up with a key contact at Delta named Patty Dejesus, who happens to be a Soldiers Angels Affiliate, and she in turn hooked us up with a Senior VP who sprung us generous airfare sponsorship to get us to the Middle East.
I am less than qualified to talk the details of planning because Matt, Toby and Ricky handled all that. I will leave it to them to tell those details, but suffice it to say it is a complicated process that required the help of so many contacts that came through their experiences and talents. But one area I have a lot of insight is with the Security Team that took us in, safeguarded us, and got us out without a scratch. TigerSwan is co-founded by James Reese and Brian Searcy, both retired Delta Force. You want some locked and loaded, been there and really done that, experienced of the experienced guys looking after you, you want them. And they cut us a deal and then some.
For my part, I trained to get in better shape. First up I changed my diet and lost 25 pounds. Then I started working out with weights to build upper body and back strength to enable me to carry a special marker to place at the site where Mike fell. And I walked with an armored vest weighing 25 plus pounds for five miles at a time to build endurance for the airports we would walk in and in case at some point I had to be on foot I could keep up and pull my load. If nothing else Mike has been a major factor in getting much healthier and most likely extending my life expectancy.
I have traveled the country meeting about 108 Hours and going to fund raisers. Two trips to San Antonio, Washington DC and two trips to Shreveport LA, culminating with a trip October 25, 2011 to Raliegh NC visit TigerSwan HQ and meet Jim Reese, Brian Searcy and their team. Thankfully I have a lot of friends at Delta Airlines and their buddy passes have been a cheap way to get around to all the meetings including the quick morning flight/afternoon return to TigerSwan. It was just a few days to our push-out to Dubai on October 31 late night flight on Delta Airlines. So it was at 2143 Hours Atlanta local time, 108 Hours went wheels up as we lifted off the runaway. I had remained calm and emotions in check until that final taxi out from the terminal. But then, it happened - I looked out the window and there was the Moon nearing its half moon phase. It was too much and I cried, I mean really cried and quietly whispered "I am coming Mike, I am keeping that promise..." Thankfully the run-up of the engines drowned out my sobs and the darkness of the cabinet hid my tears.
Fourteen hours plus later we touched down in the darkness of a new night at Dubai. Now I have to be honest and admit that even though I was riding in comfort, having been very well attended to and fed continually by the Delta flight crew, that my butt was sore and my back was stiff. I wondered how it was that Mike must have felt given his flight over to Kuwait on May 15, 2005 was not nearly so comfortable nor did he get cabin service like I did and I know for a fact he was crammed in with a plane load of soldiers each with less than the room they needed for their big frames to stretch out. A reminder that my son was a man more than I can ever be and obviously much tougher than me.
From Dubai we departed on Wed. 2 Nov for Amman Jordan, a three hour flight or so back north, but relatively short compared to the pond jump we had just made. In Amman we linked up with Jim Reese and TigerSwan and left the next day, Thursday 3 Nov for Baghdad. I can't tell you how excited I was as we reached the landing pattern for BIAP - Baghdad International Airport. I strained to look over the two seats to my right to see out the window. There we met the TigerSwan Iraq team and headed to their secured compound in downtown Baghdad. There we had final briefings and planning to move south to Yusufiyah the next morning to the site where Mike was killed. Ironically it was the 24th year since my father suddenly died at a much too young age of 62.
But that night I sat on the roof of the TigerSwan compound and just stared at Moon and just drank it in as I sat just 18 miles by air from where that same moon shone down over where Mike fell. I was almost to the Moon over Yusufiyah. As I tried for so many months and days to imagine getting Mike home from deployment, running the scene through my head seeing him march onto a Ft. Stewart parade field and feeling what it would be like to run and embrace him - no bear hug him and feel the excitement and joy of him come home from war, so it was I tried to imagine actually kneeling at the very spot where he fell. Friday 4 Nov was to be that day.
We arose early and loaded up and headed south. Tampa is a route coming in from the south that Mike had traveled into Baghdad when they convoyed up from Kuwait in late May 2005. Now I was on it heading south on it to Mamuhdiyah just to the east of Yusufiyah. For the next few hours we sized up the area and the final security assessment was made. All the while we cris-crossed many roads to the northern sector of Mike's area of operations traveling on roads such as Harley and Fatboy. Got to tell you I am awkward to say the least wearing body armor and head gear. I have even more respect for Mike and all military personnel who do their jobs wearing this heavy cumbersome gear. I learned doing simple things like trying to reach across your body and scratch your elbow is a challenge. I was asked along the way what Mike would think about me making this trip. I can see him laughing at me waddling like a top heavy duck trying to figure out how to bend and move about with the gear on, getting hung up in the door of the vehicle trying to get in and out He would probably be overly worried and cautious about me being there. He would want to protect me, even tell me to not come. He was a protector and that was a great loss to me, for I counted on him to be there in my infirmed years as I grew old, maybe even to carry me in his arms if need be.
As we started moving to the south toward Yusufiyah and the site where Mike was killed, we began to run into Iraqi Army checkpoints. We had to divert at their orders to other routes and finally were diverted to the main road from Tampa into Yusufiyah. We cleared four more checkpoints and then it happened. The fifth checkpoint came news of danger and unacceptable risk ahead and we were turned back. 1.5 miles from the site. I could feel it, I could smell it, I could almost see it in the distance. But it was not to be. My heart broke, I cried and I was so sick to my stomach I wanted to throw up. I wanted it and I was willing to risk anything to get that last 1.5 miles behind me. But, the plan all along was the security team maintained final say for it was their job to keep us safe. They made the call - it was a no go. But they offered to send their personnel alone and at least place the marble engraved 40 plus pound slab I had brought from home to placed at the site where Mike fell. It was tempting. But in the end my feeling and words were if it was too dangerous for me to go it was too dangerous for their personnel to go. We either all went or no one went. I would not let them do the dangerous heavy lifting and me sit up the road in safety.
We pulled back and continued to assess. The decision was made we would try again on Saturday 5 Nov. It was hoped we might get an Iraqi Army escort and during the night it looked as though we would. But the thugs acted up really worse than the day before and the escort was not available. The area was too hot and dangerous. My dream of kneeling at the site where Mike died was over for the time being for we were out of time to make another go of it. Later that day a bomb killed 27 in the area. More confirmation that TigerSwan made the right call.
While I did not get to the spot in the road where Mike fell, the trip was a great success. The planning was well planned and worked. We went in safe and left safe and I am now home safe as is all those on the team. TigerSwan did a great job and their instincts and knowledge were key to our safety in the end. They hold out hope that another time we can make a go of it and gave me a standing invite to come back when.... But my age and the reality of what is about to happen after the American withdrawal is complete makes that a tough odds probability. But, I will not close the door and if things got to a better state of safety I will go back, but only if the conditions improve dramatically for the stress of this trip was hard on my family. To be expected, for Iraq has bitten us hard. I wanted at least one shot at this and I got it. I got a lot in the deal. I am thankful for what I was given, for 5000 plus other families in the War on Terror will most likely not get such an opportunity. I got to see the area in Baghdad and in Mike's area of operations to the south and I now at least have an understanding of where he was, what he was up against and what it was "like". I kept the promise I made to Mike. I went there. I kept the promise I made to myself. And in the end, I vainly proved to myself that I would not run scared of Iraq the rest of my life. I have faith in God that he had a reason to close the door to that last 1.5 miles and that if he wants me to make the trip and get there one day, it will happen. But if it does not, he has blessed me with so much. As Lou Gehrig, the famed Yankee first baseman said in his farewell speech when the disease named for him struck him down in his prime, "Today I am the luckiest man on the face of the earth." So it is for me.
I went to Iraq to go to a place where Mike was killed, and my actual perception was only of that of a country on a map. But in the trip I got unexpected bonuses. I fast formed a friendship with the TigerSwan Iraq staff - an all Iraqi team. They have families, they have hopes and they have dreams of peace and freedom. I met their dear children who hugged and thanked me for what Mike did. I met an Iraqi dad who lost his civilian son and nephew to a violent bomb blast as they did what young men in their late teens do - just hanging out and trying to enjoy life and friendship, bothering no one. While our languages kept us from understanding the words we spoke absent the help of an interpreter, our hearts and eyes spoke the same language. Grief for sons lost. A broken heart is a broken heart in any language. This Iraqi father offered me comfort and prayers for a better future and for a healed heart. While I offered the same I was caught with the reality that he has the greater suffering. When Mike was killed our war ended. But this Iraqi dad's war continues and what a heavy additional load of pain it must be to live in a continuing dangerous environment wondering what is next for your family, especially in the wake of the American withdrawal. I just wish I had the ability to take this off their shoulders and make it better.
I will leave it to my dear friend Toby Nunn to offer his views and more details. Honestly, I am kind of exhausted from the trip - mentally exhausted, and still trying to process it all. I can't adequately tell you how I feel but suffice it to say in the end it is good. There is a dot in the matrix I want to kneel and touch. I know where it is at. As long as this earth turns, the dot will not move and it will always be there. It is the center of the bulls eye of my dream. In horseshoes close counts, and so it is with my trip to the Moon over Yusufiyah. I got real close. I made it farther than some might have thought and came home safer than some worried I might. I feel restored. I can live life more fully. I can die in peace. I can now look at the Moon over Yusufiyah actually having seen it up close and personal. And I have a good alternate place for the engraved marble slab, which for now is in the safeguarded hands placed on the roof of the TigerSwan compound in Baghdad, where the Moon over Yusufiyah will shine down on it.
You can't really know how much you love a son or daughter until you lose them. I pray that those who read my words or hear my voice will never know such love. Always bear in mind when those moments come that you might want to ring your child's neck to consider how good it feels to hug it. Make memories as you go and don't worry about trying to make them big and fancy. Disney World, and the like are great, but the everyday unplanned moments are much sweeter. Memories sustain you in tough times. Life can be lost, pictures destroyed and film erased. But memories endure our entire life. We need neither light of day or dark of night to see them clearly in our minds. We can enjoy them alone or share them with others. Memories are always available where we may be, what we may be doing, 24/7.
Romans 8:28 - from all things God can work good.
DUTY HONOR COUNTRY.
Remember with Honor.
Thank you Matt, Blackfive Team, Toby, Ricky, Soldiers Angels (and my dear friend and head Angel Patti Patton-Bader) and so many others, some whose names I am yet to learn, but know that I am forever grateful for your help.
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah Iraq
USA E 108 CAV 48th BCT GAARNG