Editor’s note: James Reese is the CEO of TigerSwan, a service-disabled, veteran-owned security and consulting firm that deals in global instability, operation risk management, and business intelligence. TigerSwan was hired to protect Robert Stokely during his journey to Iraq. Robert Stokely's story is the subject of "108 Hours," an original documentary airing on CNN International on Friday, Jan. 11 at 4.30 p.m. GMT; Saturday Jan. 12 at 2 p.m. GMT and 9.30 p.m. GMT; or Sunday at 11.30 a.m. GMT.
As another Veterans Day and holiday season approaches, we should all keep the families of the more than 6,600 American service members killed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in our hearts and prayers, as well as the thousands of Iraqi and Afghan partners who have been killed alongside their American brothers. It is one thing to deal with death in wartime, with a mission at stake and the need for keeping your head clear and your mind sharp. It is quite another experience to grieve together with family members, who only know that the person they love most in life is gone.
That’s why I have so much respect for Robert Stokely. In the midst of his pain over losing his son Mike in 2005 to a roadside IED in Iraq, he had the courage to want to go to the very spot where Mike fell and honor his service by laying a marker there. I had spent time with grieving parents before -- along with my own parents who lost a veteran son to cancer -- but Robert Stokley was different.
At first, I was hesitant. Yusafiya, Iraq was not a place I would have recommended visiting for any reason. But then I met Robert and spent some time with him talking about Mike. I sensed the profound loss and emptiness that he was dealing with. I was incredibly moved, not only by the bond between father and son, but by Robert’s determination. He had decided that the best way for him to show his respect for the sacrifice that Mike had made, and to show his son that he was not alone in his final act of bravery, was for his dad to go there too. He would stand in the place where his son was mortally wounded, and see it with his own eyes. For Robert to confront his own fears of that place to be closer to his son and find a measure of peace was an act of tremendous courage, and even greater love.
As a husband and father -- as well as a soldier -- I knew that we had to help Robert with his mission. If I had lost a son or daughter as Robert and so many other parents have in recent years, I’d want to do the same thing. Throughout our mission with Soldiers’ Angels, in some of the most hostile and volatile territory on earth, Robert was calm and resolute. He trusted the TigerSwan team to do what we do best to minimize the danger, even though danger was constantly present.
We were able to get a glimpse of what Mike saw and felt. We saw the potato factory Mike spoke about in letters, drove the same highways Mike patrolled every night and stood outside the Forward Operations Base that Mike was evacuated to when he closed his eyes for the final time. On our last evening in Iraq, we had an emotional ceremony on the rooftop of the TigerSwan villa. Robert gave me the engraved marble marker he had made for the trip, along with a U.S. flag that had flown over Mike’s gravesite in Georgia.
Before we left, Robert had the opportunity to meet an Iraqi man who also lost a son in the war. As I observed them sharing their stories, it occurred to me that despite all their differences, it was what they had in common that mattered most. It was an honor and a humbling experience for us to support and pay homage to another U.S. soldier and his family for their ultimate sacrifice, and for our organization to continue to support the global cause of stability.
"Rangers Lead the Way!"