A father seeks peace in a place of war
Robert Stokely fired up his computer and began a journey to a place an ocean and continent away, to a land of parched earth and dusty brush not far from the banks of the Euphrates.
It is the Iraqi town where Robert's son Mike was killed on a hot August night in 2005. A place that haunted him.
Robert showed me his Google Earth mapping ritual the first time I met him in his office in suburban Atlanta.
It was almost a year after Mike's death, and he was tortured by the thought that he might die without ever seeing where his son fell.
Now, when I meet him for lunch at a sports bar more than six years later, it is as though a great weight has been lifted.
The sorrow of losing a child, unimaginable to many of us, never withers.
Robert still wears Mike's dog tag around his neck and occasionally sleeps in his son's bedroom, frozen in time with Mike's Green Day CDs and military memorabilia.
On a shelf in the room sits a round clock that Robert bought for $4.98. He stopped it at 2:20 a.m., the time of Mike's death, and in black marker scribbled the date: August 16.
Robert still does the things that made his grief so visible to me in the aftermath of Mike's death. But Robert's voice is steadier now. He can finish most of his sentences without tears.
I know that it is because of that place -- Yusufiya.
In 2005, I was a newspaper reporter embedded with Mike's National Guard brigade, the 48th Infantry.
His unit, Troop E of the 108th Cavalry Regiment, slept in a rat-infested potato factory in Yusufiya and patrolled the restive town and its outskirts, never knowing who was friend or foe.
The insurgency was raging in Iraq, and Yusufiya lay in a part of the country that gained notoriety as the Triangle of Death as more and more American soldiers lost their lives on bomb-laden roads.
That's how Mike was killed. He stepped out of his Humvee during a night operation, and a bomb sent shrapnel slicing through his body.
I wrote about Mike's memorial ceremony at a forward operating base not far from where he died. His friends occupied rows of folding metal chairs set up in front of a pair of Mike's desert boots. His dog tags hung from an upended rifle.
Robert read that story. And we began a conversation, first through e-mail, and later in person, when I returned from Iraq.
It struck me from the beginning how open he was; few parents of soldiers I'd met were so grittily honest.
We order bowls of vegetable soup and after small talk, I decide to ask him why he chose to be so public with his sorrow.
"I would rather tell the story as it is than have people fill in the blanks," he says.
There's another reason, too, why Robert has been so forthcoming.
"I want people who killed my son to know they failed in their mission," he says. "They wanted to leave us as the walking dead, shells of people. I'm not going to let them have that."
On the first anniversary of Mike's death, his father had shared so many memories.
I learned he was born prematurely and weighed only 4 pounds, 2 ounces. That he grew up with a scar on his chest where a tube was inserted to save his life when his left lung collapsed.
After Mike died, Robert looked at the autopsy reports. He realized his son's left lung had collapsed again.
Robert listened over and over to the last voice mail Mike left on his cell phone. He couldn't bear to close Mike's bank account, even though it held only $29.
He put me in his Ford Escape and took me to all the places in Atlanta that meant something to him as a father.
To the first apartment they shared after Robert and Mike's mom divorced. To the cemetery at Corinth Christian Church in the town of Loganville, where Mike is buried. I remember how he bought 12 gallons of water from a nearby convenience store for the grass around the headstone.
I ask him if he still visits the grave once a month. He tells me he does; that he keeps a watering can, hedge clippers and a bottle of Windex in his car in case of impromptu visits.
"I can't do anything else for Mike other than keep his grave up," he says.
I don't know what to say as silence makes the moment awkward. We both look down at our soup.
Then, he volunteers: "I know some people think I'm over the top."
I know that he's a father in pain.
I think of what he told me six years ago: He couldn't rest until he stood in the very spot where his son took his last breath.
He was like any other person who felt a need to see the place where a loved one died. Only this was not the scene of a car accident along a lonely Georgia highway. It was a place far away -- one of war.
The journey of his dreams
Robert bookmarked the spot where Mike died on Google Earth. Every day, he studied the images of green and taupe parcels of flat land.
He'd always been fascinated by geography. GPS, his family called him, because he memorized maps and never lost his way, even in an unfamiliar town.
He figured out that Yusufiya is about the same latitude as Sharpsburg, the town south of Atlanta that he calls home.
Even before Mike died, Robert sat on his front porch at night, listened to crickets and gazed at the moon. He found solace in knowing that it was the same moon Mike saw -- only eight hours earlier.
Robert is the Coweta County solicitor and well connected in his community. He launched a scholarship foundation in Mike's name and spoke at veterans' events. He lobbied to have a highway honoring his son and invited me to the inauguration. I still have a plastic replica of the green road sign announcing "Sgt. Michael Stokely Memorial Highway" in my house.
But with every year, his yearning to see Iraq intensified.
He wrote about his desire in blogs pounded out on his computer on sleepless nights.
"It is important to me to go to the place where my son fell the night he died, kneel, and touch the soil and breathe the air," he wrote.
"Maybe, just maybe, I might even be able to do it even as the moon over Yusufiya rises."
Eventually, the people who run the nonprofit service group Soldiers' Angels saw the blog. They, in turn, contacted James Reese, a retired Delta Force officer who co-owns the security firm TigerSwan, to see if he could escort Robert to Yusufiya.
Reese wanted badly to help a father find his peace. But to take him to a war zone? Reese knew the risks were huge, but in the end, he agreed.
On Halloween night a year ago, Robert boarded a Delta flight at the Atlanta airport. He had never been aboard a plane as big as a Boeing 777 or traveled so far.
He carried with him a marble plaque bearing Mike's name, date of birth and date of death. It also bore a Bible verse: "Thy sun shall not set, nor thy moon wane. The Lord almighty is your everlasting light."
Robert worried about placing the plaque on Muslim soil. He didn't want to offend anyone. But, he thought, it was small enough and it would be OK if he put it off the side of the road.
Robert took his seat and looked out the window. The moon wasn't as bright as the night Mike died, but Robert saw its glow. As the engines roared and the jet began its sprint down the runway, Robert began to cry.
"I'm coming, Mike," he whispered.
Robert flew to Dubai and Amman and then to Baghdad. TigerSwan put him up at the firm's villa.
A few days later, he put on a helmet and a bulletproof vest and climbed clumsily into an armored Toyota Land Cruiser. Robert pauses his story to tell me that Mike -- always one for humor -- might have laughed at the sight of his dad's awkwardness.
I feel silly after I tell Robert that Mike would have been proud that his aging father had the fortitude to travel all that way. Of course, he knows.
Robert made sure his flak jacket vest bore his son's nametag. The Army only uses last names. "Stokely," it said.
One of Mike's friends had ripped it off his uniform when he died and held onto it for the rest of his yearlong tour. He'd given it to Robert when the grieving father met his son's unit at Fort Stewart.
That was the only piece of Mike's military uniform Robert had ever worn. Sometimes, he wore Mike's old polo shirts. But he had always told me he didn't deserve to wear anything that represented Mike's service.
As TigerSwan's convoy of five vehicles made its way south on the main highway from Baghdad, Robert sat calmly in the back seat of the Land Cruiser, a pocket-sized, camouflage-covered Bible in his hands. Inside, he shuddered.
TigerSwan personnel were on high alert after reports of violence that morning during a Shiite pilgrimage. They had intelligence that a suicide bomber was in the area.
Robert's convoy started running into Iraqi checkpoints. Soon, they had been diverted off their route. Robert had studied the maps and grid coordinates so many times that he knew exactly where they were: a mile and half away from the potato factory.
"Are we at about the 30-grid mark? We should be six, seven, eight miles to the east of Yusufiya," Robert said.
The security team marveled at Robert's knowledge of every road, every alley. He was determined to help get them to Yusufiya.
But after being turned away several times, TigerSwan's Reese felt it was too dangerous to go in. They would have to give up. They would have to return to Baghdad.
Robert felt sick to his stomach. He was dry-heaving, so heartbroken that tears began flowing down his face.
He eyed the tree line and thought for a moment that he would gently open the car door and make a mad dash.
But he didn't. He had promised his family there would be no more tragedy.
He shakes his head as he finishes his story. "I was so close."
I ask Robert how he lives with the thought that he missed the chance to see the place that haunted him. Is it worse that he tried and didn't make it?
He tells me he might have regrets except for what happened next in his journey to Iraq.
He met an Iraqi man who'd lost his son and nephew in a bombing. A trip across Baghdad was fraught with danger for him and his family.
That Iraqi father, Robert says, wants the same things in life that he does. But the Iraqi man's days are far more daunting.
At the Baghdad airport, Robert felt lucky to be going home to a safe place.
"I remember thinking that when we buried Mike, our war was over. But that father? He lives in uncertainty every day."
It was eerie hearing Robert's words. It's exactly how I had felt on my trips to Iraq. That word, uncertainty, had appeared in so many of my stories. I could not imagine how wretched it would be to live with that feeling all the time, to not know whether you'd survive a trip to the market and back.
I tell Robert that he looks more at ease now. He pauses and takes another sip of his water.
"I talk too much, you know," he says, smiling.
He still looks at the map. He still gazes upward at the moon. But he assures me he can go through an entire day now without thinking about Yusufiya.
It used to be a place on the map where Robert's son died. Now he thinks of it as a place that people call home.
The very first time I interviewed Robert, he told me that after his son was killed, he was no longer afraid to die. I realize now, after all these years, he is no longer afraid to live.
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