A grieving father follows son to Iraq

Apex company arranges trip

aramos@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2012 

Robert Stokely wakes up in his son's bed. The phone is ringing by his head.

He listens to the voice on the receiver and in seconds he's sprinting for the front door.

At the driveway he stops. They wait for him, an officer and a chaplain. "I regret to inform you ..."

In that instant, he becomes Robert Stokely father of Army National Guard Sgt. Michael Stokely, 23, killed in action.

The air is sucked out of his lungs and he buckles against his car door.

In the midst of thoughts of guilt and pain, a promise shines through: I will see where my son died.

Stokely made his vow at 7 a.m. Aug. 16, 2005 - 7,000 miles from the war-torn country where his son died.

Triangle of Death

Six years later in March 2011, the phone in Jim Reese's Apex office rang.

"Jimmy, I have a father from a Gold Star family who lost his son in Yusufiyah who wants to go to Iraq to see where his son was killed. If anyone can do it you can," Reese recalled his conversation with retired Army Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt.

Reese, a retired Delta Force officer and co-owner of global security consulting firm TigerSwan, was ready to sign up.

But his lawyers and insurance company balked.

While Reese's company had never had a client injury, the security risk was real. Yusufiyah was located in what was once called "The Triangle of Death".

From 2004 to 2007 the southern region of Iraq, from Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah and Iskandariyah were rife with brutal attacks against coalition forces, Iraqi military and civilians. The canals and ditches were laced with improvised explosive devices.

Reese and his partner weighed the risks and the gains.

"The only gain I saw was helping a father come to peace with the loss of his son," said Reese, a father of two. "I lost a brother 10 years ago to cancer and I had to watch my parents, who grieve to this day with the loss of a son. For me, it's a no-brainer. Let's take this man over there to fulfill his dream."

Several months later, Robert Stokely walked through TigerSwan's doors. His son's dog tags hanging around his neck. As a former casualty notification officer, Reese recognized the look in Stokely's eyes. "It doesn't matter how many years; you can still look in the eyes and see the loss," Reese said. "His life has always changed. No father ever thinks they are going to outlive their children."

Wheels up

The geographic location where an IED killed his son had become a fixture in Stokely's mind, but it would take six years to make the trip a reality.

In 2005, Stokely who lives in Sharpsburg, Ga., approached media outlets to see if they would take him on as an embedded journalist, but those plans were derailed when a car accident severely injured his then 13-year-old daughter. A few days after the accident, on Jan. 29, 2006, ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff was critically injured by an IED in Iraq. Stokely's wife, Retta, asked him to stop planning the trip.

In the 18 months it took his daughter to recover, Stokely set up a nonprofit foundation in his son's name that gives out scholarships. Stokely and his family successfully worked to get a highway named after his son. Stokely, the solicitor general in Coweta County, Ga. became an active speaker at military events and writer on military blogs.

But in December 2010, the ache to see where Mike Stokely died became too great. "I can not die in peace one day if I do not go. I will be 58 in January. ...The only gift in life I dream of for myself, is to kneel and touch the ground where (he) died," reads an email Stokely sent to Blackfive, a blog set up by former military members and writers.

The blog put Stokely in touch with the nonprofit Soldier's Angel, of which Kimmitt was a member. Blackfive and Soldier's Angel helped raise money for the trip and TigerSwan donated their services.

Stokely was finally on his way. At the Atlanta airport, Stokely's plane was readying for take-off. In his seat, Stokely finally let his tears fall. It was Oct. 31 2011.

"The first time it became abundantly clear this is happening was when were taxiing in the runway to take off, and I looked out the window and I saw the moon," Stokely said. "I'm just sitting there looking out the window and I started sobbing. And I quietly said, 'I'm coming Mike. I'm coming.' "

Moon over Yusufiyah

The night of Nov. 3, Stokely stood on the roof TigerSwan's villa in Baghdad looking at the moon.

After his son was deployed, Stokely would spend sleepless nights in Sharpsburg, Ga., gazing up at the moon.

"It's what I call the moon over Yusufiyah," Stokely said. "I told (Mike), 'You know son I want you, when you look at the moon, to know that eight hours later I'm going to see that same moon at about the same place in the sky.' "

This sleepless night was different.

"I thought I'm 18 miles or so from there," Stokely said. "I'm all but there. I don't think I've ever been more peaceful and content in my life."

High alert

The next day Stokely donned his armored helmet and vest, tucked his Bible in his vest pocket and grabbed the bag holding a 40-pound marble headstone bearing his son's name and an abbreviated Bible verse, Isaiah 60:20. "Your sun shall not set nor your moon wane, and the Lord shall be your everlasting light," reads the verse.

For months Stokely carried the headstone, first to show potential donors and then through the airports of Atlanta, Dubai, Jordan and finally Baghdad to bring to its final resting place where Michael Stokely died.

"I wanted to do something to commemorate being there," he said. "I just felt a need to pay respects to the place Mike died."

In a twist of fate, Stokely's personal journey coincided with another pilgrimage. On Nov. 4, hundreds of thousands of Shiites were traveling to Karbala and An Najaf for Ashura, a religious holiday.

The pilgrimage created a dangerous situation, as the Sunnis target innocent civilians, Reese said.

"What's happening is al-Qaida and the insurgency target it. They try to start civil war," Reese said. "What they are trying to show is that the central government of Iraq can't protect the populace."

That morning the three armored sports utility vehicles carrying Stokely, Reese and about 11 others navigated the southern roads and checkpoints of Iraq toward Yusufiyah . They were forced to change direction several times.

At one point, Reese stopped getting security updates. For 45 minutes they waited by the side of the road.

Finally, news came. The area was blocked. They changed course again.

They made it to a fifth checkpoint, the gate to Yusufiyah. Stokely was 1.5 miles away from where his son died.

But the Iraqi army guards were reluctant to let them pass. After 35 minutes of futile negotiations, TigerSwan personnel realized they would go no farther.

"The Iraqi army captain said, 'No, the risk is too high, and I'm not going to have on my shoulders the loss of an American killed on my watch,' " Reese said. "You have to appreciate that. We try to influence, say please, but he wasn't having it."

Good news/bad news

The news was a devastating blow for Stokely.

"I'm crying. I was actually sitting there thinking, 'I've been working out, walking. I can walk five miles with a stone on my back. If I can walk five miles at a pretty good pace, I knew exactly where I was and I knew where to go. If I can get out of this vehicle and get across those bushes and get across that canal I can break and run and maybe they won't catch me.' "

Stokely, who refers to himself as "Mr. GPS," had been studying maps for years and figured he could make it.

But Reese and the rest of the TigerSwan crew seemed to know what he was thinking, Stokely said. With their support, he eventually calmed down.

They would try again the next day, Reese said, this time with an Iraqi Army escort.

Promise made

That night Stokely couldn't sleep. Explosions and gunfire rang through the darkness. At one point a TigerSwan employee came in and warned Stokely away from the windows because mortars and shots were coming too close.

At 4:30 a.m. Reese walked into Stokely's room.

"Jim says 'Robert, it's not going to happen. They pulled our escort,' " Stokely remembered.

A bomb had killed more than 20 people in the area. With the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha a day away, violence was expected to worsen. The risks outweighed the benefit, said Reese.

Just like that, the years of hoping and months of planning seemed to be over.

Stokely started sobbing.

Reese knelt down and gently reached out to Stokely.

"Robert, I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Reese said. "But some day I'm going to get you there; sooner or later, and it will be sooner. Hold on and I will get you there. We are not giving up. My team will get you there. But it's not going to be today."

Shared grief

Stokely headed to the place that had given him solace less than 48 hours before: the rooftop of the TigerSwan villa. As he again gazed up at the moon, Stokely reflected on his journey and his long-ago vow. But by then, he realized he wasn't the only one grieving. During the trip, Stokely had spoken to an Iraqi father who had lost his son and nephew. "They were just going out to a public area in Baghdad, and it was just a random suicide bombing," he said. "They were just blown apart and killed."

They weren't soldiers, just young men living their lives. "One of the things that became abundantly apparent to me - and by now I've learned the hardships of just living in Iraq - it's still a war-torn country," Stokely said. "There are people willing to kill innocents to prove a point. I'm looking at this father and I want to weep."

It was in that moment that Stokely realized how fortunate he was. "I said to him, 'I am so much luckier than you, because when my son was killed my war ended, but yours continued,' " Stokely said. "I was just heartbroken and started feeling guilty that I was going to get to go home to a safe place called America, and they were still going to be there struggling."

Grief and closure

For Stokely, visiting Iraq was not about closure; it was about dealing with grief. "There will never be closure for me," Stokely said. "I will die with a broken heart. I choose and I will do my best to live with as much joy as possible."

On that roof in Baghdad, Stokely spoke to the Iraqis in his heart.

"I got so close, 5,000 other families won't even get this close," Stokely said. "While I'm broken-hearted, I'm going to be thankful for the opportunity. I'm going to be content that I gave it my best try. And, if I get the chance to come back one day, and as we go that last mile and a half, and it's the right time and the right conditions. ... I will come back. If not, I can now die in peace."

Stokely's pilgrimage to Yusufiyah will also help others cope with loss. His journey was filmed for a documentary for Soldier's Angel. The film will give people a chance to see what happens after the hearse comes through town, the 21-gun salute, and the folding of the flag, Stokely said.

"We've seen all the pictures from the little boy to the mom, and then the funeral's over and life goes on," he said. "I don't mean that in a bad way. Life does have to go on, but unfortunately life will be never be the same."

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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