Saturday, April 15, 2006

Operation: Honor A Hero: The Story Revealed (Part One)

OK, I was going to wait until later next week to reveal the latest "Sneaky Kat Adventure" that I've been up to for the past several weeks, but I'm finding I just can't wait that much longer. Anyway, if you visited my little blog here between mid-February and earlier this month, you no doubt saw a link to, and some postings about, "Operation Honor a Hero." Various other bloggers around the internet, as well as myself, were asking our readers to please send a message of love and support to the family of a solider who had been killed in action, in honor of what would have been his 24th birthday on April 19.

Well, the "anonymous" email-gatherer was me (as some of you know) and the receipients of the emails is the family of Sgt. Michael Stokely, who was from my hometown of Loganville, Georgia. The idea was to take those emails and make them into three scrapbooks -- one for his dad, who I know, one for his widow (who I don't know) and one for his mom (likewise, who I don't know). I tried searching the internet for pictures of Mike, but didn't find very many, surprisingly. So, I put on my "sneaky-Kat thinking cap" and emailed his dad. I told him I wanted to make a scrapbook for Mike's widow in honor of his birthday and asked if he had any pictures he could email to me. Much to my delight, he said he would get copies of pictures for me by the April 2 deadline. So, for about six weeks, with the help of various blog friends (thank you CJ, JP,, Thunder Run, LL, Rosemary, the principal of Mike's high school, and many others!) many wonderfully kind, sweet, touching emails were sent to my special "Honor A Hero" email account.

Sometime during the first week of April, I received the pictures from Mike's dad. He said he was sending me about 40-50 pictures... but when I counted them, there was over 130!!!! It was, quite literally, a snapshot of his life from a newborn baby in the NICU on up to pictures from the funeral. When I looked at those pictures, I cried and cried and cried -- tears were just streaming down my face as I saw his life before me. He was just SO full of life and joy! And me and a friend noticed the same thing -- if you look at the pictures of him as an infant, on up through his life, right on up to the very last picture ever taken of him -- his smile is EXACTLY THE SAME. Same great smile, his whole life. Well, anyway, using all the emails I received from all over the U.S. and those pictures, I put together the first scrapbook - the one for his dad & family. When it was done, the scrapbook (a 12x12 album) was a full 40 pages long. You can see pictures of it HERE.

Now, my problem was how to get it to dad & family. I could have mailed it to them, BUT I was so afraid of it getting lost in the mail, or left on the front porch & having it disappear or something, I just didn't want to go that route if I didn't have to. So, trying to be sneaky again (though no doubt he at least had an inkling what I was up to, if he hadn't already figured it out) I emailed his dad and asked if they planned to be up this way & visit Mike's grave at all during Easter weekend (since it's right near my house, maybe five minutes away, if that). He answered affirmatively, thankfully, and agreed to come by to pick up the "small Easter gift" our family had gotten for them.

Well, to make a long story short, as it turns out, they were running behind schedule and asked if I could meet them up at Mike's gravesite at 6:45 tonight. I agreed... and boy was I NERVOUS. It was almost the same feeling I get before meeting one of my soldier-babies, but not quite. Different somehow. Not quite the same -- when I meet one of my soldier-babies, I'm ecstatic with joy that they really & truly did make it home. This time... no such happy ending.

Putting that scrapbook together had been a very, very emotional experience for me, to say the least. In fact, when I was done with it, I gave myself a two-day "break" to recover a bit-- I didn't even START the one for Mike's widow until yesterday. I'd always hoped to have the honor of meeting the Stokely family one day. Going out to Mike's grave is always an emotional experience. Meeting his parents, I knew, would be an emotional experience. Meeting his parents at his grave - wow. Mega-emotions to say the least. I got in my car and headed out that way, nervous as heck, hoping to God that I'd done "good enough" with this scrapbook, this tribute and celebration of the life of Sgt. Michael Stokely. A very kind Local Friend of mine made a musical video collage of aobut 85 of the family pictures I had gotten, as a tribute to Mike. (Thank you, Local Friend!). I took that along with me, as well. (I'd hoped to be able to post it on my blog here, but it wouldn't cooperate. :( *sigh* Anyway, it was BEAUTIFULLY done!)

I drove to the cemetary, arriving only minutes after the Stokely family arrived. Mr. & Mrs. Stokely were there, as well as a young man who had served with Mike in Iraq, who had to return to the states early due to a family emergency. (I will never, as long as I live, forget the image of Mike's friend sitting on the ground by his grave, looking at the headstone.....Heartwrenching to say the least.) I was thinking, "Wow... what do you say to someone who has lost a child in combat? What if I say something stupid?" (I'm VERY good at saying stupid stuff, haha). Thankfully, I actually felt comfortable with them right away. After a few minutes, I went to my car and got the scrapbook and the DVD. I told them that I'd kinda fibbed a little (uh, wait a minute... isn't it like a crime to fib to a prosecutor/county Solicitor?! uh-oh.... Hey, well, I'm not in court nor am I a resident in that particular county, haha, so I should be safe, right?! hehehe) -- I wasn't just making a scrapbook ONLY for Mike's widow, I'd made one for them, too. And it really wasn't an Easter gift, it was in honor of Mike's birthday on 4/19. You know the old saying, "Give and it shall be given unto you?" That's kind of what was going through my mind -- they gave me over 100 family photographs -- not realizing that they would be recieving those very same photographs back - and more besides, with the emails and such that people had sent in!!!!

It was definitely an honor to be there, to give them their pictures back (hehe) and to look through the scrapbook with them. (By this time, I knew a lot of the stories behind a lot of the pictures in there.) I was getting misty-eyed for sure, but thankfully didn't completely lose it. I think I was there (I would guess) about fifteen to twenty minutes. After they'd looked through the scrapbook (which was, I wrote in my letter them in the scrapbook, NOT a gift from "me" but rather a gift from THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, in honor and appreciation for all Mike and his family sacrificed for us), I said my goodbyes. Mrs. Stokely gave me a hug, got a hug from Mr. Stokely, and then I went over to Mike's friend and gave him a big hug, too - and surprisingly, THAT'S when I teared up the most & got all choked up. I gave him a big ole hug, about squeezed the stuffin out of him, I'm afraid, and said, "Thank you so much for all you've done... we appreciate you!!!" or something along those lines, at least.

And then, with the sun beginning to set, I drove home.


Georgia Blogger