As the U.S. military withdraws its forces from Iraq, the families of more than 4,000 fallen American soldiers cope with another holiday season without their loved ones. Robert Stokely, the father of a fallen soldier, wanted to bring a sense of closure to his loss by visiting the location in Iraq where his son was killed.
His son, US.. Army Sgt. Mike Stokely, was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device attack on August 16, 2005, while serving in the Georgia National Guard. In November, several organizations volunteered to make Stokely’s wish a reality. Soldiers’ Angel, a volunteer, non-profit charity coordinated the visit.
TigerSwan donated its services and support for the five day trip. TigerSwan is a North Carolina-based, veteran-owned business that specializes in vulnerability management, global stability, and training for military and law enforcement. James Reese, TigerSwan’s Chief Executive Officer, played a key role in planning the in-country support and security for the trip.
Reese personally led the team into Iraq which included Robert Stokely, Toby Nunn, executive director for Soldiers’ Angel, and Lucian Matthias, cameraman.
“When Soldier’s Angel approached me about providing support, I initially hesitated because of the risk,” said Reese. “However, the soldier, leader, husband, and father in me knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t live my life as a soldier being risk adverse, and I also knew that if it was my son or daughter, I would want to do the same thing.”
Robert Stokely arrived in Amman, Jordan and linked up with Reese and TigerSwan’s Jordan staff. The group conducted threat briefings before leaving for Baghdad International Airport. Once in Baghdad, the party was greeted by TigerSwan’s Baghdad team and escorted down a route that at one time was the most dangerous highway in the world.
Their first destination was the TigerSwan villa within the city to conduct final site visit planning. The next morning, Robert Stokely and the TigerSwan team put on Kevlar body armor and loaded into armored vehicles. The team drove to the 2005 attack site in Yusufyah, Iraq previously known as the ”Triangle of Death.”
Approaching a Muslim holiday, Shia pilgrims were walking to Najaf, which caused a heightened security alert. After a two-hour drive, the team arrived about 1,500 meters from the location Sgt. Stokely was killed. The team was stopped by Iraqi Security Forces at a checkpoint. The Iraqi Security Forces refused entry saying the threat was too high. Reese and his Iraqi head security officer decided to return to the villa and make another attempt the next day.
“It crushed me to turn around in the vehicle and tell Robert that it was not going to happen and to see the tears in his eyes,” said Reese. “The threat was too severe. Our first job is to keep our guests safe.”
The next day, they assessed the security situation based on a plethora of sources to determine if they would conduct another attempt. Unfortunately, the threat remained too high, and the mission was cancelled. That afternoon, a car bomb exploded killing several Iraqi citizens and injuring 50 more at a nearby market.
“While I did not get to the exact spot in the road where Mike fell, the trip was great success,” said Stokely. “I had the opportunity to see the area in Baghdad and in Mike’s area of operations. I now have an understanding of where he was, what he was up against, and what it was like. I kept the promise I made to myself. And in the end, I vainly proved to myself that I would not run scared of Iraq the rest of my life.”
The final evening in Iraq, Stokely and Soldier’s Angel conducted a heartfelt and emotional ceremony on the rooftop of the villa. Stokely presented Reese with an engraved marble marker he had made for the visit and a U.S. flag that flew over his son’s Georgia gravesite since 2005. He also had the opportunity to meet an Iraqi father who lost a son in the war, and the two men shared their experiences.