Robert Stokely traveled to Iraq from his home in Georgia to see the place where his son, Michael James Stokely, was killed. (HLN photo)
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Robert Stokely and his son, Michael, are seen shortly before Michael deployed to Iraq. (Courtesy of Robert Stokely)
When to watch
"108 Hours: A Father’s Journey to Iraq," an hourlong documentary chronicling Robert Stokely’s odyssey to the site of his son’s death, airs on HLN at 8 p.m. Eastern time Nov. 11; and at 7 p.m., 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Nov. 12.
Four Marines were among the first to die in the Iraq War, killed when their helicopter crashed in the opening hours of the invasion in March 2003. Army Spc. David E. Hickman was the last to die, 23 years old when a roadside bomb ripped through his armored truck Nov. 1, 2011, as the last U.S. troops were pulling out of the country.
As Hickman lay dying in the streets of Baghdad last year, a grieving father was on his way into the war-torn city. Robert Stokely's son was among the 4,480 American service members who lost their lives between those first and last deaths.
Army Sgt. Michael Stokely was killed Aug. 16, 2005. He also was 23. He also was killed by a roadside bomb. And like all the others before and after him, the young soldier left behind family and friends and fellow war fighters who grieved his loss. None, perhaps, more so than his dad.
One year to the day after he boarded a plane for Iraq, Robert Stokely spoke with OFFduty about his journey and a new documentary that will premiere on CNN's sister network HLN on Veterans Day. Titled "108 Hours," it's the story of a father's foray into the combat zone to leave a small memorial on the roadside where his son died — and his hope to leave with some sense of solace. More than that, though, Stokely's story is about a father's love for his son, sorrow unimaginable and the slow process of finding peace while mustering the courage to move on.
Take a good, long look
Robert Stokely remembers receiving the news of his son's death with the same kind of vivid, visceral detail combat troops have of a firefight. It was a day he knew in his gut would come.
The night before, Stokely was having one of those "walk around the house, sit on the porch nights" fretting over his son's safety as a cavalry scout in the Georgia Army National Guard. His son had gotten married shortly before deploying. As Mike prepared to ship out, Stokely told him to keep an eye on the moon. "Son, just remember, when you look at the moon, eight hours later I'm going to see the same moon, and I'm going to be thinking of you."
Stokely already had given his son one last hug and was loading up to go outside the unit barracks when he turned and saw the young man slowly swaying in the embrace of his new bride. "I remember that still, small voice in my head say, ‘Take a good long look, because it's your last.'"
Now, exactly three months later, casualties were mounting in Iraq. Stokely was feeling agitated.
Sitting on his porch in rural Georgia, he watched the nearly full moon rise high into the night sky and eventually set. He finally found some comfort in his son's bedroom, drifting off to sleep a few hours before dawn.
He woke with a start. It was 7 a.m. The phone was ringing.
"Hello, Mr. Stokely? This is Major Hulsey. I'm here with Chaplain Dicoppo. We need to speak to you urgently, but we can't get to the door because of your dog."
He sprang out of his son's bed.
"I ran as fast as I could out the front door, and as they approached me, I just kind of stopped and froze and had one of those momentary stares, and then before they could say anything, I said, "Is my boy dead?"
Leaning against his car as they gave him the news, "it was as though someone had stuck a vacuum cleaner hose down into my stomach and sucked all the air out of me. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't speak, I couldn't cry, I couldn't do anything. I was just frozen in time."
His son had died by the side of the road earlier that day at 2:20 a.m., just after the moon had set.
It was in that very moment as he took in the news, Stokely says, that he vowed quietly to himself that he would travel to Iraq to see the place where his son died.
"I felt horrible guilt that I was not there to protect my son or at least hold him in his final dying moments," he said. That morning, he gathered the family — his wife, and Michael's sister and brother. "We will go on," he told them. "We're not going to let Iraq have us, too."
In the coming months and years, going to Iraq would become his consuming focus. He spent hours poring over maps of the sector his son's unit patrolled in Yusufiyah, a Baghdad suburb about 15 miles southwest of Iraq's capital.
"I could not stand the thought of one day dying and not having gone there. I was literally tortured by that thought. I just had to see it. My son died there. His blood spilled out on that ground. I had to see this place, what it looked like, what it smelled like, what it tasted like. I just had to go there. I could not live with myself if I didn't."
The chief prosecutor for Coweta County, outside of Atlanta, Stokely tried to finagle his way into Iraq as an embedded journalist. He put those plans aside, however, when his daughter was nearly killed in a car accident and then contracted Lyme disease while recovering.
In the meantime, he became involved in Soldiers' Angels, a nonprofit outreach group that sends care packages and other support to troops downrange. It was through those contacts that he eventually met former Delta Force commander and retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Reese.
Now the CEO of TigerSwan, a security contractor with a unit in Baghdad, among other hot spots, Reese agreed to help sneak Stokely into Yusufiyah, still a strife-torn pocket of the country.
"108 Hours" chronicles that mission, which has all the feel of a real-life "Mission Impossible" while offering a rare glimpse into how covert operations go down.
Moon over Yusufiyah
"It was dangerous," Reese told a reporter, shortly after returning. But Reese believes the trip was cathartic for Stokely. "He sat there on the roof of our villa looking at the moon all night long. His son and he stared at that same moon from the same place. I believe it brought closure for him."
"I'll die with a broken heart. There's no way to fix my broken heart," Stokely says. "I also recognize what I did was, in some ways, grossly selfish. But I also know that if I didn't do this, I couldn't move forward into the future and live a full enough life."
Like the families and veterans of the Vietnam War who now travel to the former battlefields there, Stokely says he hopes trips like his can become a more common source of healing for this generation.
"I don't want to put people in a box or tell anyone how to grieve, but for the right person, this can be a big help," Stokely says. It cuts right to the question that is asked most often by others facing the loss of a child.
"They always ask in those first few hours, those first few days, ‘Does it get any better?' I just very plainly tell them, it never gets any better, but if you work at it, you'll get better at it. You'll be able to live a full and happy life, but you've got to really work at it."
Maybe that means one day traveling to a distant land. For others, there are other roads.
"No matter what, I just encourage them to have hope, if nothing else [to] be determined to honor the one you've lost by living life as fully and happily as you can."
Stokely says his son was the 1,856th service member killed in Iraq. He still thinks of him every time he looks at the moon.
"When I get into my moments of being brokenhearted and I just feel like this is so unfair, when I don't even want to go forward anymore, I just remind myself: Be thankful for what you have, not bitter for what you've lost. The only thing worse than losing him would have been to never have had him at all."