Editor's Note: Rachel Norman was a friend of Army Sgt. Michael Stokely, who was killed in Yusifiya, Iraq. His father, Robert Stokely, is the subject of "108 Hours," an original HLN documentary that follows Robert's journey to Iraq to honor Michael's memory.
I am proud to say that I was close friends with Mike Stokely from the time I was 12 years old. Mike was always a constant source of support in my life. He was there to root me on in all of my endeavors and to also be that voice of reason when I needed it. All of my memories of Mike are fond ones. From ice-cream fights to camping trip pranks and from dances to haunted houses, Mike was always there to make me smile. He was one of the most giving people I have known and had a maturity beyond his age. He spent tons of time at my house while we were growing up, and he always showed up with a bottle of cola and bag of chips because his mom always told him he couldn't be a visitor in someone's house without contributing something. He was there for me no matter what and no matter how ridiculous the request. He accompanied me to all of my corny talent shows and singing gigs, which most high school guys would not be willing to do, and he always had my back against any foe be it peer, teacher, or situation.
Mike always put others in front of himself and that showed when he fulfilled his lifelong dream of joining the military. As other units got deployed to Iraq. I clearly remember Mike being disappointed he had not yet been called. He said that defending his country was what he had been training to do, and he wanted the opportunity to serve. I was incredibly worried when he told me he had gotten deployed, and I remember hugging him at my parents house while I sobbed and begged him not to go, telling him that I had a horrible feeling about his fate if he were to go to Iraq. He told me not to worry and that this wasn't goodbye, he would see me later.
On August 16, 2005 my life changed forever. I received a call from my sister telling me the horrible news that Mike had been killed. I was completely devastated: I knew then what it felt like to lose my best friend. Mike's death truly showed me that life can end at any moment, and we are not promised tomorrow. I started living life to its absolute fullest and not taking anything or anyone for granted. I learned I only wanted to surround myself with people who showed me the love and respect that I deserved, and I feel this helped lead me to my wonderful husband, Austin. Mike would definitely be more than happy with my choice of a spouse, and I know if he were still alive they would be great friends. I truly believe Mike is now my guardian angel. I know he watches down on me from heaven protecting me from danger and playing little pranks on me from time to time, just as he has done since we were 12 years old.
Growing up, I always read in history books about the people that died to earn and defend our country's freedom. I was always taught to vote, respect the armed services, and honor the United States flag. I can no longer look at an American flag without thinking about Mike's sacrifice. The words to "The Star Spangled Banner" are no longer just words: I feel personally connected to the sacrifice of all those great Americans that have given their lives because I knew and loved one.
I don't take any of my freedoms for granted and take every chance I get to thank those who keep us free, just as Mike did.
"108 Hours: A Father's journey to Iraq" will air 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.