Today, I visited the gravesite of Sgt. Michael Stokely of Georgia’s National Guard 48th BCT. As I posted earlier, finding out where he was buried and visiting his grave has been very, very high on my list of “Things I MUST Do.’’ Through one of those strange quirks of fate (or, as I prefer to think of it, God working behind the scenes again), I got an email out of the blue one day from Sgt. Stokely’s father, who somehow happened to stumble across my blog. This morning I got an email from him, telling me where his son is buried, in case I wanted to go visit his grave…which of course, I very much did.
My husband had already made plans to go visit a local nursing home with our church’s nursing home ministry this morning, so I had to wait until he got back home before I could leave. In theory, I was supposed to be working on my research paper while he was gone, but I couldn’t concentrate. The kids were fighting over doing (or rather, NOT doing) their chores, and in general causing chaos… not to mention the fact that I was already pretty dang emotional… and the thought of working on a research paper about a Shakespearean tragedy (Hamlet) was definitely not appealing. Finally, he returned around 1:00 and I was free to go. “Why don’t you take the van, honey? Since I just got done driving it, it’s already warmed up and you won’t have to wait for the heat to start working,” my hubby said. “No thanks,” I replied. I figured (sentimental thing that I am) it would be more appropriate to take “The Kat-Mobile” ~ my 1997 Buick LaSabre… you know, the one with 14 “Support Our Troops” magnets on it of various sizes and most importantly, my new bumper sticker given to me by Mr. Stokely. It says, “IRAQI FREEDOM. (next line) 48TH BRIGAGE GA NAT’L GUARD (next line) E TROOP 108TH CAV (next line) SPC. MIKE STOKELY * 16 AUGUST 2005.”
Heart pounding, I got into my car and pulled out of my driveway. Before going on to the cemetery, I had to go to Wal-Mart. For one thing, I needed to pick up some Christmas ornaments for a project our small group Bible study is doing next week. I also needed to get some flowers to leave on Sgt. Stokely’s grave. Anyway, I got to Wal-Mart, and found the glass Christmas ornaments I needed for our small group. I reversed course and was headed in the direction of the flower aisle when a display rack of personalized Christmas ornaments caught my eye. Just out of curiosity (you know how Kurious us Kats are), I looked through them real quick… and then, I saw it. It was a small, plastic ornament, maybe two inches tall ~ a teddy bear wearing a soldier’s uniform. Across the little Bear Soldier’s chest was a sash with his name on it: “MIKE.” Tears sprang to my eyes as I plucked it off the rack and carefully laid the ornament in my shopping cart. Now, on to the flowers. I had initially planned on getting some real flowers, but on my way to the “real flower” aisle, I passed the “fake flower” aisle. The fake flower aisle had Christmassy-looking poinsettias, holly, and the like. Since it is December and Christmas is right around the corner, I decided that it would be best to get something seasonally appropriate. I carefully searched through the flowers, trying to find the prettiest ones in the best condition. Finally, I found just the right bunch and proceeded to the checkout line. On my way through the checkout line, I grabbed a pack of Kleenex, knowing I’d surely need it.
Finally, I was on my way to the cemetery. I had no trouble finding Sgt. Stokely’s grave, thanks to the directions given me by his father. I parked my car right by where the grave was located, collected my flowers, and stepped outside. The small cemetery was deserted, except for me. It was a chilly, overcast December day with a nippy breeze in the air. The ground was soft from an earlier rain. I was very thankful that the rain paused long enough for me to make this little pilgrimage. I walked to his grave, and (placing a Wal-Mart bag on the ground to keep from getting wet & muddy) knelt beside the still-new grave. There were several small American flags on and around his grave, together with faded bunches of flowers left by others before me. There were fall-colored artificial flowers at the head of the grave… My guess would be that they were left there for Thanksgiving, but of course I don’t know that, it’s just my guess. There were no other Christmas decorations or flowers yet. With trembling hands, I carefully arranged my poinsettias, being careful not to disturb the other flowers already there. I gently took my Bear Soldier Christmas ornament and “pinned” him to the ground with one of the small flags and planted his little feet in the ground, leaning him up against the flag so it looked like he was standing at attention.
Then, I just knelt there, took off my glasses, and let my tears fall. I have no idea how long I knelt there and cried, but it was a bit of a while. As the tears streamed down my face, I thought first and foremost of young Sgt. Stokely, and his family. I thought of the sacrifice he had made for our country, the ultimate sacrifice… and the sacrifice of his wonderful family. Then, my thoughts turned to our own dear “adopted” 48th BCT solider, who, over the course of the past few months, has become very much like family to us…and I thought of his family (who, likewise, I’ve kind of “adopted” too… and I just love them all dearly). I thought of my Adopted Hero’s platoon, remembering the pictures I got of them digging into the Christmas cookies I baked for them all…I started out having “one” adopted 48th soldier…then I kind of adopted his whole platoon…they are all precious. Oh, God, keep them safe… I thought of each of my other dear adopted soldiers and marines ~ I thought of my adopted Marines, Matt and Steve, both of whom are in extremely dangerous areas. I thought of my newly-adopted combat medic, Cindy, whom I’ve only been writing to for three weeks. God, keep them safe, too… I thought of my Chaplain, “Major,” who was one of the recipients of almost 600 of all those Christmas cards y’all so kindly sent in… I thought of all our dear heroes out there and their families… and then, for a long time, I simply thought of nothing at all… I just knelt there and cried, not thinking; only feeling.
Finally, when my face was numb from the cold and my legs had almost fallen asleep, I stood up, wiped my eyes, and put my glasses back on. I noticed then that the wind had blown a couple bunches of flowers off of the grave on the side opposite where I was. I walked around, picked them up, and with great love and care put them right back where they belonged. I stood there a few minutes more, then climbed into my car and started the engine. Christmas music blared from the radio; I turned the radio off and sat there in silence for several minutes more. I had mentioned to my friends at Adopt-a-Platoon that I would be making this pilgrimage today. The words my friends posted in the AAP forums echoed in my mind: “Kat I am with you in spirit today as you visit with Sgt. Stokely. Please tell him, "Thank you," from me, would you?” “Yes…. Please thank him for me as well!” “Me too!!! I think we will all be with you in your heart!!!!” “Kat, while you are there today please let Mike know with silent prayer that I will be forever grateful to him for his sacrifice.” “Kat, please tell him that we all appreciate his sacrifice…”
Yes, y’all, I did tell him. I gave him our most heart-felt thanks…not only from my family, and me but also from all of y’all.
Then, I drove home with silent tears… just as the rain began to fall again.
Thank you, Mike.
We love you.