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Seven Samurai

Remembering SGT Mike Stokely

Received this email from Robert Stokely, father of Sergeant Michael Stokely who was killed in Iraq last year.  Many of you are probably familiar with Robert's emails as they've been posted on blogs like Mudville and Thunder Run:

August 27, 2006, our family has come full circle on a year of firsts, for on this day a year ago, SGT Mike Stokely,  our beloved husband, son, brother and friend was laid to rest in Corinth Memorial Gardens in Loganville Georgia.  His funeral and final burial was the "end" of an eleven day marathon of agony that had started with the notice of his death on August 16, 2005.  It is difficult to say what was hardest to bear during that eleven day period.  The harshness of pain was fluid, but never absent.  I came to understand why we bury our dead and how you can't begin a lifetime of healing until you have that closure that comes with laying your loved one to a final respectful rest.   

While there was tremendous grief and agony in this eleven day period, there was also great pride that swelled the heart, for how could it not be so as we saw untold support and honor for Mike and our family.  On August 22, 2005, before Mike's body was back from Iraq, over 900 people attended a Memorial Service in Sharpsburg GA where Mike lived the year before he left for Iraq with me, my wife / his "other mom"  and younger brother and sister.  The day after Mike's body came back to the Atlanta area, the town where he went to middle and high school and where he was to be buried - Loganville GA - threw a grand welcome home arrival as police and fire trucks blocked miles of four lane US 78 in both directions, as thousands lined the street.  Kids on ball fields stopped playing their little league games and stood still as he passed.  Resturants stopped serving food as the staff and customers ran to the highway, person after person saluting, standing with hands over hearts, waving flags, cheering, holding signs and best of all, parents holding their smaller children's hands and pointing and obviously explaining what was happening. Bouqets of flowers were thrown in front of the hearse and in front of our cars. At times when we stopped, people ran to touch the hearse, or even shake our hands.  All four Atlanta TV News Channels had helicopters overhead the entire time, doing live broadcasts for the evening news, and of course "film at eleven."   The ordinary kid next door who loved his country enough to give his life for her had come home to a hero's welcome...
More tears and a few laughs await you after the Jump.
It is an irony that you can have so much grief interspersed with such pride swelling in your heart even as tears well in your eyes, and still be able to laugh.  The memory of the very loved we had lost was caught in a moment Mike would have found humorous, and laughed himself that special laugh he had.  As we traveled the highway through Loganville that day of his "welcome home parade", and again to the church for his funeral, many businesses had posted a tribute to Mike on their sign boards.  Our favorite and one to be remembered for all time, was at a small meat market and said  this:
                                            "IN HONOR OF MIKE STOKELY"
                                            pork ribs $1.69 lb.
Although they probably didn't mean it to come out that way, we loved it, and laughed a much needed, deep down laugh.  Mike would have loved it and  probably thought this business was the only one with any sense left, given all the fuss being made over him.  Forever more, whenever I see pork ribs, I will think of that day and what we now call the "Mike Stokely Special".
Then, it was time - a time we wanted to get beyond, but a time we didn't want to see come.  It was 2:00 p.m.August 27, 2005 and time for the funeral.  The funeral service at the church was attended by over a 1,000 people and a processional to the grave stretched as far as the eye could see.  Again, miles of four lane US 78 was blocked and large crowds again lined the street as we passed by.  The small country cemetary was jammed as hundreds, if not more, drew near to the final grave side service.  I was thinking the worst was over, but, oh, how wrong I was.
It is hard enough to hold your head up at your son's funeral, and maintain the dignity he would want you as his dad to show, especially realizing the final moments of saying goodbye are at hand.  But then, the final moments became unbearable as the mournful sound of TAPS played for my son as I sat just a few feet from his flag draped casket.   I was ready to break with pain and grief, even as the twenty one gun salute fired rounds.  Then the military escort began to fold the flag that had draped his casket since his return a few days earlier.  I had to focus on something and focus so hard that I could not feel the pain that was wretching me from within.  At first, I focused on a news photographer as he moved quietly and respectfully about taking pictures.  Then, I lost sight of the photographer and the pain was coming back stronger than ever.
And then, I focused again, as "he" stood there and caught my eye. DUTY SERGEANT.  He was a broad shouldered, dress uniformed Sergeant standing at the head of Mike's casket as the other soldiers began to lift the flag and ceremoniously fold it.  He looked straight ahead, steeled piercing eyes, at full attention, as though looking right at me.  I just focused on him in the background of my line of sight as the flag was folded in the foreground.  I channeled every emotion and stabbing pain into his focused stare.  Then, with the flag folded, the Duty Sergeant took it and as he was handed one of the shells from the twenty one gun salute, with the same steeled focus, he held the shell up, arm fully extended to the sky and his voice boomed "DUTY" and then he placed the shell in the folded flag.   Then the second shell, again arm fully extended skyward, voice booming, he said "HONOR" and he placed the second shell in the folded flag.  Again, he held a third shell, arm fully extended skyward, and in the same booming voice, he said "COUNTRY" as he placed the shell in the folded flag.    Then he handed the flag, with the three shell casings in the fold to the Georgia National Guard Adjutant General, followed by a crisp salute. The flag from Mike's casket was presented to Mike's wife of three months and eleven days. 
I had made it without breaking, I kept my head up and the dignity my son would have wanted.  Yes, there were tears streaming down my cheeks and he would have been o.k. with that.  As we continued to sit in our chairs, those in the receiving line came by to speak to us, DUTY SERGEANT included.  Of all the words spoken, I remember only these spoken to me by DUTY SERGEANT.  He knelt down, looked me in the eye with that same steeled look earlier, and he spoke these words as he gripped my hand firmly "STAY STRONG, STAY STRONG".  However, his eyes spoke as well - YOUR SON WAS STRONG, EVEN IN DEATH.    Now I undestood, for it was my turn to walk the path of strength that SGT Mike Stokely blazed for his dad and entire family.
As I got up to walk away, I took the rose I had clutched in my hand and laid it on Mike's casket.  A simple note hand written by me was tied by a ribbon to the rose.  The note read "I love you son" - the very last words I spoke to Mike as we ended our last conversation on earth in his phone call to me on August 8, 2005.  Then they lowered Mike's casket into the ground and sealed his vault.  I picked up a clump of red clay that was dug out of his grave and wrapped it in the tissue that held the tears I had just cried.  I keep this in a plastic bag and look at it often, and will do so the rest of my life.  I look at it for I never want to forget that day, the son I love and the legacy of strength he left for me.
Robert Stokely
proud dad of SGT Mike Stokely
KIA by IED near Yusufiyah south of Baghdad 16 Aug 2005 @ 0220 hours local
John 15:13 - No Greater Love...