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.
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.
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.