Editor’s note: Toby Nunn is the Executive Director of Soldiers’ Angels, a non-profit group that organized Robert Stokely's trip to Iraq. Soldier's Angels works with thousands of volunteers who provide aid and comfort to members of the military and their families. 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.
When you watch “108 Hours,” you must know: This story is far bigger than a documentary. It transcends an hour on screen, because it’s based on years of faith and determination on the part of Robert Stokely, his incredibly understanding and supportive wife, and his remaining children. This is not just the journey of one man, but a story of how one man’s life and sacrifice brought entire communities together to find healing and understanding.
The late Michael Stokely is the real hero of the story, and his father desperately wanted to know his son even better despite being separated by his son's death. I have done some pretty stupid things or acted irrationally in the past, but when faced with the task of bringing the two back together, it just seemed to make sense to me. It had to happen. I couldn’t explain why or how it was a personal obligation -- it just was.
I told one of my closest friends and mentors about Robert’s story. Greg Gardner is a retired Army Colonel, an accomplished leader and the one man I feel has the deepest understanding of and heart for soldiers. When I told him about Michael and how Robert had this desire to go to Iraq, he asked me a battery of questions, more personal and emotional to me than tactical, logistical and, frankly, practical. When I answered them, he simply stated, “We have work to do.”
The “war gaming,” or planning process, started, and we began putting the right people together, ones we could trust to be respectful, understanding and truly supportive of Robert. This was the most delicate of processes, as we had to bring together all types of people and skills that typically don’t fuse well, but this common love of America and her heroes compelled us forward.
I met with Robert several times, and throughout this process as we got closer, my respect and admiration for him grew tremendously. There were some speed bumps and obstacles that we had to face, moments of doubt and fear and loss of support from within inner circle, but Robert was completely committed. With all fears and doubts aside, we put the plan into action.
I remember standing in the Atlanta Airport with Robert, looking at him staring out the window into the darkness and airport lights and thinking to myself, it’s this dedication to children and loved ones that I aspire to. It was a pill hard to swallow for me, as that very day was my daughter’s fourth birthday and with deployments and other issues I should be with her. However, I knew this journey would some how make me a better man and father.
That first step on the jetway was just like taking that first step outside the wire during my combat tours. It was “ON” and nothing would turn that switch off but bringing Robert home to his family and community -- and within that all of us would find some healing. The journey was a mixture of scary times and moments of sheer disbelief at how lucky I was to be part of such an inspiring journey. I still feel, to this day, so incredibly undeserving of getting to be part of this story.
Robert has changed my life and I will always see this trip as proof to myself that I am a good father, and truly worthy of being called an American.
"108 Hours: A Father's journey to Iraq" will air Sunday, November 11th at 8pm ET, with encore showing on Monday, November 12th at 7pm and 10pm ET.