Stop the politics today — and remember

Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for
Spc. John Figueroa of the 30th Infantry Regiment patrols Arab Jabour, southeast of Baghdad in 2008. Fig, as he was known, had seen the worst of #war and shared his thoughts with me for “Chaplain Turner’s War,” a newspaper series and ebook I wrote on an army chaplain. Photo by Curtis Compton/AJC

Amid all the political noise of today, I want to stop and think of all my soldier  friends I met in Iraq and back here at home in all the years I covered the military.

Today is Veterans Day, a time for pause and reflection about the courage and sacrifice of our men and women who served in uniform. I am afraid that they will not get the attention they deserve given the current post-election situation.

Here’s to you, Fig, (see photo caption) and every veteran throughout the land.

You can find Fig’s story here: Chaplain Turner’s War

Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.
Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from other soldiers who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.
Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.

Every day is Memorial Day

John Alderman, who was captain of Mike's cavalry troop in Iraq, at the grave Thursday.
John Alderman, who was captain of Mike’s cavalry troop in Iraq, at the grave Thursday.

Thursday evening, I drove out to Loganville, Georgia. I suppose it’s not a tremendous distance from downtown Atlanta but during rush hour, it took me more than an hour before I turned right onto Georgia Highway 81, named the Michael Stokely Memorial Highway.

It was the eighth anniversary of Mike’s death.

He went to Iraq with the 48th Infantry Brigade and was killed by a bomb in the Iraqi town of Yusufiya. I covered his memorial service in Iraq and later, when I returned home, I wrote about his father, Robert Stokely, and how he coped with his son’s death. I visited Mike’s grave with Robert one year after Mike died. Friends and family gathered to remember the fallen soldier at the exact time of his death. 2:20 a.m. in Iraq.

Over the years, I kept in touch with Robert; quoted him in several of my Iraq stories and wrote a longer piece about his own journey to Yusufiya a couple of years ago. He felt he would never have closure until he touched the dirt where his son fell. That journey did not turn out as Robert had planned it but it was healing nevertheless. You can read the story on CNN.com.

Michael Stokely was killed in Iraq in August 2005.
Michael Stokely was killed in Iraq in August 2005.

I’ve always felt grateful to Robert for sharing the details of his punctured life. It’s important, I believe, for America to know it has helped others cope with their grief.

Not too many people showed up this year for the annual gathering at Mike’s grave. As Robert said, people move on with their lives. We said our hellos and made conversation. It had already rained Thursday and the clouds looked down at us with a threat of more to come. We talked about how it was unusually cool for August, almost chilly, how it has rained so much this summer that Robert didn’t have to buy gallon jugs of water to keep the grass green over Mike’s grave.

There was nothing formal about the gathering. Just family and friends remembering Mike and reflecting on the path our lives have taken.

Robert and me at a November screening of an HLN documentary about his trip back to Iraq.
Robert and me at a November screening of an HLN documentary about his trip back to Iraq.

Before I began covering the Iraq War at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I never called anyone in uniform a friend. But now I know many people in the military. Before, I was like many Americans who are oblivious to the toll of war. Not any more.

On the way home on 1-20, I thought about Robert standing on the ground above his son’s coffin. He asked everyone to remember the men and women who gave their lives fighting for their country. To many, he said, they are just soldiers. To us, they are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters.

Today is not Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day but for families like the Stokelys, every day is one of remembrance.