Article from this past Sunday's AJC. I know Robert and he's stronger than I could be in the same situation. Probably one of the better stories to come out of the AJC rag.
A father's grief, visible
Robert Stokely knows two things about time: It is fleeting, and it is without end. His days with his son were cut short when Michael died in Iraq at 23. Every day since that moment has been filled with a longing that will not go away.
By Moni Basu
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/17/06
Robert Stokely bought the black-rimmed round clock for $4.98 and placed it on a shelf in his son's room. He set it eight hours ahead to keep track of the time in Iraq, where Michael was fighting with the Georgia Army National Guard.
But the clock has not ticked in over a year.
The time is frozen at 2:20 a.m. Robert took a black marker and scribbled a date on the clock's face: August 16, 2005.
That was when Sgt. Michael Stokely's war ended —- abruptly, with the blast of a makeshift bomb hidden on a dusty road that sliced through the rural area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.
That month, that day, that hour, were filled with lasts. The time since has been a series of unwanted firsts for Robert, a father consumed by grief.
He knows Mike would not want him to shortchange life. "So, I got killed. What's the big deal?" he would say. Life goes on.
There are days that are difficult in the most obvious ways —- Mike's birthday, the last day he was home, the anniversary of his death. Between those milestones are all the ordinary days punctuated with memories of Mike.
Even the smallest thing —- a package of Chef Boyardee cheese pizza mix on a grocery store shelf —- sends Robert back to his days as a struggling dad who spent most of the change in his pocket to satisfy his son's craving.
It was at that grocery store, in that very moment, that Robert met the love of his life. He cannot look at his second wife, Retta, now without thinking of Mike.
In the cluttered office where Robert spends his days as Coweta County solicitor, he likens the memory of Mike to the Microsoft Windows program that runs on his computer. "It's always there in the background. Once in a while, you get a pop-up."
Honors in unlikely spots
On an August day last year, Robert and Retta Stokely made the long drive from Sharpsburg to Loganville for Mike's last parade. Hundreds of people lined a 10-mile stretch of asphalt to pay tribute as his body was taken from Snellville Funeral Home into the neighboring town where he had grown up and attended school.
Waffle House cooks stood respectfully with spatulas in hand. Businesses paid tribute to the fallen National Guard soldier with messages on their marquees. One was a small, corner meat market that posted its sale items on a sign at the top of a 10-foot pole: "In honor of Mike Stokely pork ribs $1.69 lb."
Robert knows the store didn't mean to run the two lines together, and yet his son would have liked the fact that the shopkeeper realized he still had to turn a profit that day. Even in that intense moment of grief, the sign made Robert chuckle. He now thinks of pork ribs as the Mike Stokely Special.
The parade, and the sign's unintended humor, was almost a relief. The day before, Robert had done what no parent should have to do. Dressed in his favorite blue blazer, gray pants and red tie with navy stripes, he had stood behind a glass door in a cargo hangar at the Atlanta airport and watched as Mike's body arrived back to Georgia.
Military officials uncrated the casket, unfolded an American flag, meticulously draped the casket and loaded it into a waiting hearse.
Robert saluted and stood at attention as best as an untrained civilian could.
Nothing up to that point —- not even the official notification, the haunting words that began "We regret to inform you..."—- was as real or vivid as that casket.
He called Retta. "Our boy is home."
Then he climbed into the hearse, and father and son made their way up I-285, onto the Stone Mountain Freeway and down U.S. 78 just as they had done all those years ago when Mike bounced back and forth between his mother's and father's homes after they divorced. Mike was raised by his mother, Melissa, and her second husband, Bill Gardner; he spent some holidays and weekends with Robert, Retta, and their children, Wesley and Abbey.
The hearse passed a Burger King in Mountain Park where Robert often took Mike to eat. Then it rolled by the entrance to Yellow River Game Ranch where Mike had rescued his baby brother from an unusually aggressive deer. Robert chatted with the driver of the hearse, a full video and audio stream running in his mind.
"Every mile was a memory," he says. "I needed to take him home one last time."
The boy becomes a man
One summer day, Robert puts on an old blue polo shirt that belonged to his son and drives to some of the homes he shared with his baby boy. From a modest house on Sycamore Drive in Decatur to apartments in Clarkston, he thinks back 23 years.
To the boy born prematurely —- 4 pounds, 2 ounces —- who grew up bearing a scar on his chest where a tube was inserted to save his life when his left lung collapsed.
To the 6-foot-3, 160-pound junior at Loganville High School who told his father he was thinking about joining the National Guard. Robert told Mike he should join the Army only if his answers to two questions were an unequivocal "yes."
"Are you ready to kill another human being? And are you prepared to be killed yourself?"
To the soldier he saw off at Fort Stewart on the 48th Brigade Combat Team's departure day in May of last year. Robert desperately wanted to snatch his son and run away. Even then he heard words inside his head telling him: "Take a good look. It's your last."
To the mental picture he has of his son's last moment.
It helped him to glean details from Army officials and Mike's friends. To know that Mike was standing near his Humvee when a hidden bomb exploded on a road in Yusufiyah. That a friend held him as he died of his injuries before the MedEvac choppers arrived.
That his left lung had collapsed. Again.
At the Seven Springs apartment complex in Clarkston, Robert pulls his black Ford Escape into the same spot where he used to park his 1972 Datsun pickup. He was freshly divorced then and juggling time between work and fetching Mike from his mother's home. He'd walked into the small apartment holding Mike's hand, worried about getting dinner on the table.
"How could I have ever known?" Robert says. "Twenty-three years went by in a hurry. Life really is that fleeting."
"See you soon"
In the last house Robert Stokely shared with his oldest son, Mike's room still looks very lived in.
Well-worn cowboy boots and shiny black combat boots sit near the door. Beastie Boys and Green Day CDs line a small shelf. Mike's cavalry spurs and helmet sit on a table opposite the bed.
Then there are the reminders that he is gone —- a framed Congressional Record with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's words honoring Mike, his Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals, a camouflage quilt from Smyrna Baptist Church, with the U.S. flag and Mike's name.
And, of course, the clock stopped on the hour of Mike's death.
"We still want him to be a part of our life," Retta says, walking underneath a "Welcome Home" sign that was made when Mike came home between training and deployment last May.
Robert was thrilled when Mike decided to move into Robert's house in Sharpsburg in March 2004. Both father and son were trying to make up for time spent apart in Mike's childhood years.
In the guest bathroom, a handwritten note in red marker is still scrawled on the upper right side of the mirror over the sink. Mike and his 14-year-old sister, Abbey, always left each other messages there. This one was his last: "See you soon, Mike."
Robert worries that one day a house sitter or a visiting child might accidentally wipe the mirror clean. He contemplates creating a new bathroom for guests to use.
"Needless to say, if we ever sell, the mirror goes," Robert says. "That's his handwriting."
"I love you, Dad"
In the shiny new Coweta County courthouse, just a couple blocks off the square in Newnan, Robert sits with his assistants as a judge hears a slew of DUI cases. It is Tuesday, Aug. 8.
Around Robert's neck dangles his son's dog tag. He has another in his right pants pocket that he often holds in the palm of his hand while prosecuting cases. On his key chain is a small black pebble from the spot in Iraq where Mike was killed.
Every reminder of his son's life is a treasure.
He can't bear to close Mike's account at Bank of Georgia —- even though it only holds $29. Robert likes the idea that mail with Mike's name on it still comes to the house.
In the courtroom, he periodically checks the time on his cellphone. Last year on this day, his phone vibrated at 11:30 a.m.
Hey, Dad, how you doing?
Mike sounded tired. He asked about the family and his dogs. Then the conversation shifted gears.
Mike had been patrolling in southwest Baghdad, where 11 soldiers of the 48th had died in as many days.
"Our mutual pact was no sugar-coating," Robert says, "but I was to keep it to myself and not let others in the family know, so as not to worry them."
Mike described sniper attacks, ongoing mortar fire, roadside bombs, a suicide car bomber —- many close calls since Mike's unit, Echo Troop of the 108th Cavalry Regiment, began missions in the Yusufiyah area. Just the day before, Mike had stepped out of his Humvee as an insurgent's bomb went off, shrapnel hitting all around.
His father asked if he was scared, and he said it was the first time he came under fire and the first time an improvised bomb went off.
But then, Mike said, you just get used to it.
Robert told his son that he was still thinking about taking a baseball bat to his shins, just as he had contemplated doing before Mike went to war.
Dad, you need to give it a rest, Mike said. You said yourself you can't hide me from God. God will find me where I am at when he is ready for me, whether it be in the safety of America, or the dangers of Yusufiyah. I have to die sometime, and I can't think of a better way than serving my country.
Then it was time to hang up.
I love you, Dad.
Robert is choking up in court, his son's voice swirling about him.
"I have to try very hard to stay focused," he says. "I thank God for my boy, a man of men, tough enough to be a soldier 8,000 miles from home in a harsh environment and under hostile fire, but still tender and thoughtful enough to say: 'I love you, Dad.' "
Those words are on a voicemail that Robert saved on Father's Day 2005. He was mad at himself then for missing his son's call. Now he is glad he never erased the message. He refuses to upgrade his cellphone; he won't risk losing that recording. "I'm so afraid I will forget the sound of his voice."
Robert gets through the last case of the morning. He gathers his legal papers and puts them away in his office before wandering over to Mother's Kitchen, a hole-in-the-wall soul food place in downtown Newnan.
He orders a plate of fried chicken, green beans and dressing and stares at the wall beside him. Pinned on the bulletin board is the Stokely family Christmas card.
Every year, the Stokelys use a photo on the cover of their card. Last December, the decision over which family picture to use took on crisis proportions. Some worried people might get "creeped out" if Mike were included.
The last photo of the family together —-taken on the 48th's departure day —- isn't particularly good. Everyone looks hot and tired. Robert points out that Retta, standing on one end, is partially cut off.
But Abbey had settled the score with a single comment. Did the family intend to cut Mike off by not including him in their holiday greeting?
The afternoon is warm, but Robert puts on his suit jacket after lunch and meanders through Newnan's square before heading back to the courthouse.
In his office, he looks through a package he sent to his son. He liked to mail things to Mike and once sent 56 pounds of stuff in seven different packages. On July 25, he placed two items in a Ready Post envelope and paid $2.44 to mail it to Yusufiyah. Inside was a souvenir baseball cap and a neon yellow Frisbee he'd picked up for Mike at Jekyll Island.
"I wanted to send him a trinket from my trip," Robert says, pulling the cap close to his chest. "To let him know I was thinking about him."
He stares at the cap, trying to see if there are any sweat band marks. Did Mike wear it while living in the potato factory that served as barracks for the soldiers in Yusufiyah? He cherishes the fact that Mike had saved the envelope that said on the outside "from dad."
The last package Robert mailed to Mike was postmarked Aug. 2, 2005. It contained candy for the soldiers and for the Iraqis with whom they interacted. Robert wonders to this day whether his son ever opened that package.
"Do the math," Robert says. Mail to soldiers in Iraq normally takes about two weeks to arrive. "It should've gotten there the night before he got killed. I don't know if it did."
Google Earth is running on Robert's computer. He clicks on a bookmarked spot and the screen whizzes him from Georgia all the way to Iraq. Satellite images show the patches of brown and green along the road where Mike took his last breath. One day, Robert wants to stand in that very same spot.
Robert clicks again and the screen focuses on the barracks where Mike slept. And then to where he is now —- a gravesite at Corinth Christian Church in Loganville.
'I just miss my son'
In downtown Monroe, nine 48th Brigade soldiers from Walton County are being honored with a parade. The soldiers sit in their sage-green uniforms on folding chairs at an angle to the courthouse steps. From a distance, it seems Michael Stokely is there among them, with big brown eyes and that smirk of a smile leaking from his lips.
Robert is sitting in his son's place. He wears the cargo pants of the Army Combat Uniform and holds a poster of his son.
Robert feels proud that Mike believed strongly enough in the ideals of the United States to risk his life for them. He feels little bitterness toward the people who planted the bomb that killed him.
"Two sides kill each other in war," he says. "They were doing what they thought was the right thing to do."
Nor has his son's death changed his convictions about the war. He believes the United States did Iraq a favor by ousting Saddam Hussein.
The person Robert harbors the most resentment toward is Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war protester who blames the Bush administration for her son Casey's death in Iraq. Robert saw a photo on the front page of a newspaper in which she was wearing a T-shirt that said: "If you aren't totally appalled by now, you haven't been paying attention."
Robert begins to list all the events in Mike's life to which he paid utmost attention.
"Cindy Sheehan is saying to me —- a dad who loved his son deeply and lost that son in the same war that her Casey died —- that if I don't see it her way, then I don't know what's going on, and essentially, something is flawed with me and my thinking.
"I started paying attention the day my boy called to join the National Guard."
After the ceremonies in downtown Monroe, people in the audience thank Robert for Mike's service. They tell him they are sorry for his loss.
Robert shakes their hands, gives some a hug. But no one there really knows.
He admits some people think he is bordering on crazy. They roll their eyes and ask why he does all the things he does.
"And I say, it plain makes me feel better. I just miss my son so much."
A legacy cut short
On the first anniversary of Mike's death, Robert invites family and friends to visit his son's grave. Among them are fellow soldiers and Niki, the woman Mike married just days before he deployed.
Robert sets up an easel, on which he places a photo of Mike wearing full uniform and a black Army beret. The picture was taken during a family outing at Line Creek. The ceremony is unscripted. About 30 people turn out in a drizzle that mists their faces as they listen to stories about the fallen soldier.
Mike was not the first Stokely to be buried with military honors. Robert's great-great grandfather, William G. Stokely and his son, Evy, also served in an Echo Troop of a cavalry regiment from Florida. They both fought in the Civil War.
"We wouldn't have existed if William or Evy had died" in the war, Robert says.
"That branch of a tree called Michael Stokely is forever severed. There will be no sprouts, no leaves. That's the real cost of war."
A year ago, tears had streamed down his face as he placed a rose on Mike's casket, then bent down to scoop up some dirt and place it in a tissue wet with his own tears.
On this day, he takes out a blue plastic container filled with water he has brought from home. Even though the skies threaten, Robert waters the August grass on his son's parched grave.
"Mike would think we're all so stupid," he mutters.
The wind picks up, and the photo of Mike blows off the easel.
It is another indelible moment for Robert Stokely. A moment when, in Iraq, it is 2:20 a.m.
> Go online for more stories about Georgia soldiers in Iraq. www.ajc.com
ABOUT THIS STORY
AJC reporter Moni Basu was in Iraq, embedded with the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Brigade Combat Team when Sgt. Michael Stokely was killed. On Aug. 19, 2005, she covered his memorial service in Mahmudiyah. After reading Basu's story, Michael's father, Robert Stokely, contacted her. Over the next 12 months, Basu exchanged e-mails with him and, after the brigade's return in May, documented his life without his son. This story is a result of her observations and interviews.