Mike Stokely was born two months prematurely on April 19, 1982 at Dekalb Medical Center in Decatur, Georgia, and grew up in Loganville, GA. When he was about five months old, his parents, Robert and Melissa, divorced and Mike went to live with his mother, who remarried William "Bill" Gardner. His step-father raised Mike and loved him like he was his own and Mike, in turn, loved them as well. Mike maintained a regular and healthy relationship with his father and his new wife, Retta Murray, splitting time between both sets of parents. They spent a lot of time together.
Mike grew up with two moms and two dads. He was loved in each home and never felt like a burden to anyone. Both sets of parents raised him in kindness and taught him good morale values. He was blessed to go to good schools and enjoyed reading. Ever since Mike was able to hold a book, he had one in his hands. When he couldn't read, his family read to him. He was a book junkie. If he wasn't actively engaged in something, he had a book in his hands. Reading was a passion for him. It wasn't uncommon to find Mike with a big thick novel in his hands. He was an avid reader from the time he could pick up and hold a book. His arch-enemy was mathematics. They just didn't seem to get along well together. He more than made up for it with his literature and language skills. There were times that his father even had trouble comprehending the kinds of things that Mike would sit up at night reading.
"Mike read books that I sometimes had trouble understanding," said his father, a lawyer in Georgia. "Many of his books were over my head. His favorites were John Grisham-type books." As you can see from the pictures below, capturing Mike without his nose in a book was quite rare.
"He was very good in school," says Robert. "But, I've concluded after all this time that Mike struggled in school because it was just boring to him. He would do his homework and never turn it in." He was a very intelligent person and full of heart.
Mike joined JROTC in the ninth grade. In high school, he played soccer and was on the cheerleading squad. However, JROTC was his big love. His parents didn't think it was going to work because Mike didn't lead a very organized life. His room was always a mess and he was always leaving things lying around the house. But, when it came to JROTC he was the most attentive and natural leader one would expect from a cadet. It was amazing how he could manage two seemingly different lifestyles. Mike was meant for the military life. He just didn't know it yet.
USMC Corporal Chris Henry, a fellow high school JROTC cadet with Mike, says that Mike was a very motivated man. He always accomplished what he set out to do.
"The one thing I remember most about him was not only his smile but his hand shake. He had the strongest hand shake I have ever gotten."
Mike also had a love for the theater. He never told his family about it, but he played in many productions. One of those was "Charlotte's Web", which he put on during a field trip to an elementary school. It wasn't until after Mike died that his drama teacher approached his father and told him about the difference he made in people's lives with his acting. He was always trying to make other people happy and when people tried to acknowledge him for it, he humbly brushed it aside.
"It's a hidden treasure to have someone you've never met send you a message and tell you about all the good things your son did growing up," said his father. She went on to tell him about the scholarship she started in his name and that two $1000 scholarships had already been awarded so that others could go to college and study drama.
In late March or early April 2000, while Mike was a junior in high school, he called his father and talked with him at length about joining the National Guard. He wanted to know what his father thought about the idea. Robert was apprehensive about it and remembered what happened during the Vietnam War when recruiters would make promises to recruits about not going to war only to find out they were lied to. He told his son to be careful about what they promise and to get it in writing, especially if it was for an extended period of time.
"I told him that if he joined, he'd definitely be in a war," recounted his father. "I asked him if he was prepared to kill another person. Can you look down the barrel of a rifle and kill another human being or launch a hand grenade if your country calls on you to do that?"
Before Mike could answer, Robert cautioned him that that was an awesome responsibility to carry out. After thinking about the question for a few seconds, he answered, "Yes, I can do that."
Robert asked him another thought-provoking question and told his son that his answer had to unequivocal, without wavering. He told Mike that it was the enemy's job to kill him and every soldier he was with.
"Are you prepared to be killed in the service of your country," he began the question. "It ain't like a John Wayne movie where you can come back for part two. Once you're dead, you're dead." He explained that he would never see his family again on this earth and they will never see him again. "Are you prepared to do die for your country?"
Mike didn't have to think about this question. Without hesitation, Mike answered with a resounding, "yes." Robert told him that he had answered his own questions about what he should do. He told him that he should serve his country and gave him his blessing and permission to do so. Mike was 17.
He left in June 2000 for boot camp through summer and came back to finish his senior year of high school. He was attending Advanced Individual Training at Fort Gordon when two planes were flown in to the World Trade Center. Mike was confined to post and told to be ready to possible deploy. Robert knew at that moment that when he told his son he was going to war, that it was now going to come true.
In the fall of 2002, Mike returned from a two week training exercise at Fort Stewart and decided he wanted to change jobs. He wanted to join a Cavalry Scout unit. He explained to his father that cavalry scouts are "the guys on the front line, probing, hit and run, eyes forward, etc." His father didn't like the sound of that and thought it was dangerous. Mike told him that was what he wanted to do. He wanted to be where the action was. He even hinted at going Special Forces one day. Robert expressed reservations about the idea, telling his son he could get killed doing that.
"Dad," Mike responded. "I can be killed doing anything." Robert tried to convince his son to say where he was safest. Mike told him he'd love being a Cav Scout more than anything. He joined E Troop, 108th Cavalry of the Georgia National Guard.
On May 5, 2005, Mike married his high school sweetheart, Niki Yancey. They became very close and started dating. The two fell deeply in love and got married ten days before he was sent to Iraq.
Mike could have had a recruiting exemption and turned it down because he wanted to support the war. He was an enthusiastic member of the Georgia Army National Guard's Demonstration and Recruiting Team (DART). His father could have leaned on him not to go and Mike wouldn't have gone out of respect for his wishes, but he wanted Mike to be his own man and make his own decisions.
While Mike was in Iraq, he worked long days that sometimes lasted 22 hours. His normal duty day consisted of guard duty and presence patrols. During one patrol in the first week of August, Mike came across a unit that had been hit by an IED. He immediately grabbed his combat lifesaving bag and began rendering first aid to injured soldiers. One of his fellow soldiers remembers coming up on Mike standing on an open road, unprotected and exposing himself to enemy fire, holding an IV bag and taking care of a fellow soldier.
Mike was always thinking of others. One time, he and one of his buddies had to pull guard duty after several days of continuous duty. His friend had to perform his guard shift after a long period of time without sleep due to missions. He told his buddy to take a nap and get some sleep and that he would stand watch, then swap out later. For the next six hours, Mike let his buddy sleep while he stood the entire watch himself.
On August 13, 2005, Mike wrote a letter to his wife, Niki, telling her about his sunburn, his broken pen and how much he wished he could be home with her in September.
"I can't wait to see you, to hear you," he told her. "I can't wait to start my life with you. I'll just be happy when I can come home, get a job and help you finish school."
Three days later, on August 16th, Mike's patrol stopped and the NCO in charge told everyone to rest easy while he walked back down the road with a Corporal to check out something suspicious. Mike refused to "rest easy", and took up a flanking position at the rear of his truck watching their backs instead. He was a dismount, and as he saw it, his job as a Cav Scout dismount was to watch his guys' backs. The Corporal and SGT didn't find anything but while they walked back up the road to the trucks, they heard a crackling noise. They turned around to go back and as they got within 10 feet of the crackling noise it came to a halt and exploded. The SGT was hit and seriously wounded, but the CPL, the team's medic, survived without wounds. He helped get the SGT back to the safety zone between trucks and began working on him when he noticed that Mike was also down. His best friend rushed to his assistance, but there was nothing he could do for Mike. His wounds were too severe. Mike died quickly and peacefully in the arms of his best military friend, surrounded by others who he had served with for years. He was 23 years old. Mike is survived by his wife Niki, his father Robert Stokely, his mother Melissa Gardner, his brother Wes, and his sister Abbey.
Mike's 7th grade teacher, Ellen Brannon - "Michael's bright smile and warm personality will never be forgotten by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him. I was Michael's 7th grade science teacher at LMS. He was one of those students who made teaching so rewarding. It was always a pleasure to see Michael at Hill's - he would go out of his way to come over to say hello and give me a big hug. I am so proud of him and feel so honored to have known him. Although he will be missed, his memory will live on in the hearts of so many. Thank you, Michael, for being such an honorable young man. I know God's arms were open wide as he welcomed you home."
Childhood friend, James Crownover - "I can't think of a single person that I would rather have grown up with. I have nothing but fond memories of our friendship, and these were plentiful. I was always comfortable discussing life's difficulties with you. I have not met anyone less judgmental and more genuinely concerned for others than yourself. I cannot tell you how much the news of your death has affected my family. We all cared deeply for you and your parents, Melissa and Bill. You have obviously been a positive figure in MANY peoples lives, and everyone generally says the same thing. You treated us all with respect, always offered a smile, and would do anything for a friend. The quality of a man that you turned out to be serves as a testament as to how well Melissa and Bill raised you. I know that they are proud to know that their son has had (and still has) a profound influence on so many people's lives. Even though you have now crossed over with incredible honor, your legacy continues here in the hearts of those of us who were fortunate enough to know you. I will always remember the way that you carried yourself, and admit that at times I remind myself to treat everyone with the same respect and openness that I observed in you. Thanks for your sacrifice, thanks for representing the United States, and thanks for being my friend. You will be missed."
Coworker and high school friend, Brooke Westbrook - "I can't even think of Mike without seeing a smile on his face. He loved playing jokes, and unfortunately I was the victim of a few. The day he stole my senior decal out of my car and put it in his truck so he could park in on the senior row, I had no idea he would one day give his life for our country. He always made fun of me for my country accent, especially when we were in Spanish. He was a wonderful friend who I always looked forward to seeing, because I knew he would make me laugh."
Fellow soldier, Capt. Jerry Easterwood - "I met Mike while he was at Georgia Military College. Over the past several years Mike has kept up with me by email, often asking for prayer. I joined the GA Guard and was with Mike at Ft. Irwin, CA. The day before he left for Ft. Stewart I met up with Mike at the Burger King. He told me about his future plans to marry his girlfriend prior to his Iraq deployment. We talked about the future, and about Christ's directions in it. Mike knew his plan and purpose in life. He was a believer and I will forever be changed by his testimony."
If you would like to help honor the memory of Mike Stokely, find more information about the Mike Stokely Foundation at 2795 East Highway 34, Newnan, GA 30265. The telephone is 678-416-1387.
NEWS ABOUT SGT Mike Stokely
Mike's story respectfully written by CJ Grisham.