The following column was originally published Aug. 10, 2007 and includes an important update:
I received an anonymous email last week. The email referred to a November 2006 HUMAN EVENTS article titled “Remember the Heroes of Fallujah” by James C. Roberts. The story was written to commemorate the two year anniversary of Operation Phantom Fury, an iconic mission in which select Marine and Army battalions surrounded and entered the city of Fallujah to sweep out jihadists.
“Fallujah had become a magnet for foreign jihadists and there were several thousand in the city who had come to make martyrs of themselves, to die while killing as many Americans as possible” Roberts wrote.
Roberts interviewed the heroes who fought in Operation Phantom Fury, telling their incredible stories of valor in combat. One of the Marines he’d interviewed was Cpl. Sean Stokes. The anonymous email said, “Thought you should know that Sean Stokes was killed in Iraq, Monday the 30th of July 2007.”
Taken aback, I pulled up Roberts’ article from the HUMAN EVENTS archives and scrolled through to look for the segment with the Marine mentioned in this unsettling email. As I came across Stokes picture and read his story my eyes welled up with tears, and my throat began to tighten. I didn’t know Cpl. Sean Stokes but something about his words, and Roberts’ account, reached out to me.
“On November 17, the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment was moving systematically through Fallujah, clearing houses. Pvt. Sean Stokes was point man for his platoon, which meant that on this day he was the man to kick in the door and enter the houses first” wrote Roberts.
“At each house I said a prayer,” Stokes says. “Please God get me out of this one. When I come out of the house, I thank him, light up a cigarette and move on to the next one.”
|Cpl. Sean A. Stokes, age 24.|
The more I thought about the email and Sean Stokes the more I knew I needed to tell his story. Looking for more information on Stokes’ life and service in the Marine Corps, I came across articles and blog entries from family members, friends, and even strangers whose lives Sean touched. Jeff Sommers a Marine who served with Stokes wrote a blog about his comrade. He wrote about the trials and tribulations Stokes faced while in the Marines and his perseverance and passion for being a Marine that pushed him forward. He told the tale of Stokes’ heroic actions in Fallujah and also why Stokes went on a 3rd tour to Iraq. Sommers wrote:
“As he neared his end of service date, he began approaching me, wondering what he could do to deploy again. I told him that he didn’t need to deploy again, he’d earned the rank no one told him he could, fought in the biggest battle in decades, and had a good life waiting for him. He persisted, and with only weeks to go, told me that if we deployed and something happened he wouldn’t feel right being back home. I know it would eat him up for the rest of his life if he felt he was leaving anything unfinished.”
“The last time I saw him I asked how he was doing. He was happy, the element was led by Sgt Adams, one of his friends from the Fallujah platoon, they were in the same squad together back then in 2004. He liked working with him, and was exactly where he wanted to be if we deployed — back in a place for him to lead Marines and guide them through a fight if it happened. It was the situation that he feared would happen if he had gotten out, his buddies would be someplace where he couldn’t share the burden with them.”
Another news story on Stokes mentioned a book written about Operation Phantom Fury called We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder With the Marines Who Took Fallujah. The book’s author, Patrick O’Donnell, was embedded in Fallujah with Stokes and focuses on him a great deal through out the book. O’Donnell was kind enough to talk to me about Stokes’ story.
“I consider myself a friend of his and I’m a big, big supporter of Sean. This has really hit me hard. I can almost feel him in the room. I can almost touch him right now. But he’s gone. He’s really one of the most noble people I’ve ever met. I saw his courage first hand. He was clearly one of the most courageous Marines in 1st platoon. He killed nine guys single-handedly. He was combat wounded two or three times and he hid his wounds so he wouldn’t be evacuated…so he could stay and fight with his brothers.”
O’Donnell expressed to me his concern that the military had not yet honored Stokes with a Bronze Star for his actions in Fallujah and that he was even missing some Purple Hearts. In his last conversation with Stokes via email he told me Stokes said, “My medal is living.”
While walking “point” again in Al-Anbar province Stokes was checking an area to make sure it was clear for other vehicles to pass through when an Improvised Explosive Device detonated underneath him. Sommer’s blogs that “a helicopter arrived shortly to evacuate him, but he bled to death before it landed at the aid station.”
Something led me to Sean Stokes. I feel honored to have spoken with his friends and family and to have heard the fragments of his life that they have shared. His heroic deeds in Fallujah were a testament to his soul and the kind of selfless person his loved ones have told me he was. When you think of Sean Stokes don’t just picture a young man in dress blues: think of a son greeting his father and mother upon his return from a tour in Iraq, a grandson posing for a picture with his grandmother, a brother, a cousin, and friend always looking out for his loved ones, and a fiancé waiting to return to his lover.
I asked O’Donnell if there was anything that he wanted to make sure that people knew about Sean, he said “That he was the most noble person I’ve met in my life…extremely courageous…selfless…and he had this really cool smile too.”
Update: When I wrote this story Stokes was considered an “unsung hero” but I’m honored to report that he has finally received at least some of the recognition he deserves.
Because of his heroic actions in Fallujah Sean Andrew Stokes, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star last week on Feb. 6, which would have been his 25 birthday. His father, Gary Stokes accepted it for him. He was just the third Private to receive this medal in 40 years, and the first in this war.
Sean’s father has founded an organization to support other military families that are coping with the loss of a family member. Please visit www.sasmemorial.org to learn more about Sean Stokes and what you can do to help.