NEAR KARMAH, Iraq --
Corporal Sean A. Stokes, killed July 30 in Al Anbar province, is a legend. Not because his body now lay still, rather because he lived a life of selfless devotion and valor that those who hear his story will never forget.
The warriors who know of Sean Stokes – the young private who took point in Fallujah, or the compassionate selfless Marine who put nothing before the safety of his brothers – will tell his story for ages to come. Those who have not yet heard of Sean Stokes needn’t look far. True accounts of his actions in Fallujah saturate the internet, and Stokes’ name peppers mainstream non-fiction war stories. His name is synonymous with heroism and passion, and the more we can tell his story, the more we honor his life and the hundreds of warriors like him who have gone before us and continue to fill our ranks.
Life and Death of a Warrior
Sean Stokes enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He joined 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines Regiment in 2004 after running into trouble with his previous command. As punishment, he was busted down to the rank of private, and transferred to 3/1 – the next unit scheduled to deploy. A twist of fate perhaps, as Sean would make history in the coming months. Under normal circumstances, he would have been discharged.
“Sean wasn’t upset about it at all. He considered it an opportunity to prove himself and make new friends,” said 1st Lt. Jeffrey Sommers, Stokes’ platoon commander at the time.
Sommers’ description of Sean echoes that of Auburn, Calif., citizens who knew him. A high school guidance counselor described Sean as a young man who wanted to “develop into a real strong, ethical, moral human being."
During Operation Phantom Fury, the reserved Marine would prove himself a Spartan in the streets. Sommers said he witnessed Stokes commit maniacal acts of bravery, to the point where the platoon commander questioned his sanity.
“I would see Marines do things and think to myself ‘Hey, glad everything turned out the way it did, but what the hell was going through your head?’”
One example comes from Nov. 10, when Stokes, who served as the front-walking “point man”, and his team were ambushed by enemy forces with grenades and automatic weapons fire. Stokes sustained shrapnel wounds in his lower legs and refused to be evacuated while he provided suppressive fire, allowing an adjacent unit to destroy the enemy.
Stokes walked point each day of the battle. He was the first Marine down every street, in every house and every room – hundreds of rooms. He was the first Marine to be attacked by the enemy and the first to report the situation to his squad leader. Bullets, grenades, rockets and roadside bombs were around every corner.
When asked to describe Stokes’ motives for taking the lead into so much danger, Sommers explained: “You don’t do it because of courage, and you don’t do it because you want to. Stokes probably did it because he knew there was more to the battle than the few seconds involved in opening a door.”
He continued: “That kind of compassion … I won’t really ever understand. Human factors in those situations take a grip of you long before honor, courage and commitment.”
Bing West, author of No True Glory, met Stokes during the battle of Fallujah and fondly recalled Stokes as “A grunt with (Lima Company) 3/1 with a great smile.
“He was then living on the third deck of a shot-out factory that I was sure would collapse around us,” said West. “Sean just laughed when I told him I was going to sleep outdoors. He had seen three weeks of non-stop action.”
According to a citation for a pending award, during the non-stop action Stokes saw the face of the death constantly and was wounded several times. What kept him going?
“At each house, I said a prayer,” Stokes later told a reporter. “Please God, get me out of this one. When I come out of a house, I thank Him, light up a cigarette and move on to the next one.”
When the dust settled and blood was rinsed from the streets, names of men like Sean Stokes who braved Hell on Earth rose from the ruins. Some Marines claim to have witnessed Stokes dispatch as many as ten insurgents, others say it was more than twenty.
After the battle, Stokes remained with 3/1, ran through another work-up cycle and deployed again in Sept. 2005 to Haditha, Iraq. During this time, he solidified his bond with his peers and built upon his reputation as the quiet warrior. He began to recover from his earlier career glitches and picked up rank and billets of responsibility. When the unit completed the deployment, Stokes was set to get out of the Marine Corps – but he didn’t.
“Sean was working at the gym on Pendleton, and I would see him every now and then and we’d talk,” said Sommers. When he told the battalion he was eager to extend his contract and deploy again with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the staff was less than shocked. Another hero of Fallujah, Sgt. Bradley Adams, had volunteered to join the battalion for the Western Pacific deployment. The bond between Stokes and Adams gave each Marine no choice but to stand by his brother.
“Basically, each Marine said ‘I’m not going without him and he’s not going anywhere without me,’” claims Maj. Shannon Neller, Battalion Landing Team 3/1 Operations Officer.
Together, Stokes and Adams were assigned to the battalion commander’s Personal Security Detachment. On the battlefield, this meant constant convoy operations down bomb-ridden highways and snap tactical decisions in the interest of keeping the movement as safe as possible. Stokes and Adams, said Neller, initially conducted operations in separate vehicles but eventually made their way to the lead vehicle. Stokes was on point again.
“The (battalion) sergeant major called him ‘The Pathfinder’ out there,” said Neller.
Stokes’ last day on Earth went something like this:
Elements from Battalion Landing Team 3/1 were conducting Operation PEGASUS BRIDGE, a counter-insurgency effort in the Eastern Al Anbar province. Lima, India and Weapons companies were scattered across the area of operations, sweeping for weapons caches, roadside bombs and rooting out anti-coalition insurgents. Stokes and Adams, along with the commander’s Personal Security Detachment, were darting back and forth from company positions when the convoy stopped to sweep for IEDs near an existing crater. The Marines formed a “V” and stepped carefully along the roadside when a blast rocked the area. When the chaos subsided, two Marines were down – Stokes and Adams.
“As soon as they passed over the (radio) net PSD had taken two casualties, I knew it was those two,” Sommers said. “I knew if anything ever happened to PSD it would be those guys.” Sommers added he was almost certain Stokes walked point on the sweep. He had.
Celebrating the Death of a Warrior in Battle
There are many, many ways to cope with a loss. Combat Marines have a great deal of experience with the situation, and it is all too easy sometimes to say a quick prayer and hold back tears until a memorial service is held. Marines are not heartless; like Stokes, they share a sense of duty and know their mission must continue. By pressing on, we show the Marine is still with us, and we are respecting his conviction by standing by ours. Stokes’ steadfast dedication to his fellow Marines is one of legendary proportion.
“Sean was in his element here,” Sommers said, “this is where his heart was. A lot of people do this as a job, but he did it because he loved it. He paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect his brothers and keep them out of danger. He wasn’t fighting for the American people or the Marine Corps, he was here for Adams and the guys in his platoon.”
Sommers stressed the idea that Stokes’ selflessness was far beyond that of average young men.
“Everyone talks about ‘service before self, it’s all about the guy next to you,’ y’know? And they’re taught that, but some people definitely don’t live it. Stokes lived it.”
Marines will weep as they celebrate his life and his actions. Is there any place more fitting for a warrior to rest than in the hearts of fellow men who braved a land of danger? Absolutely not.
Corporal Sean A. Stokes, the Fallujah Point Man, battalion Path Finder, is a legend.
This Generation of Heroes
In the midst of a modern “Me Generation,” young men like Sean Stokes are few and far between. Type his name into an internet search, however, and you’ll see the word “Hero” pop up everywhere.
Stokes’ actions are boasted on sites like “Marinemoms.com”, “Patriotguard.org” and countless internet blogs from random observers, parents, wives, brothers, friends, leaders and subordinates. Stokes’ name is already synonymous with heroism in the most sacred of places: the heart of America.
To speak of legends in the warrior culture has become a history lesson. Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, and perhaps the most famous, Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, who was awarded five Navy Crosses during his service from 1918 to 1955.
What about the Jason Dunham’s, the Brad Kasal’s, and the Sean Stokes’?
“Marines like Stokes have many names. His name might not have been Leonidas but he would’ve filled the first ranks of ‘The 300.*’ Marines like Stokes are the closest thing to legend we have,” said Maj. Kevin M. Gonzalez, BLT 3/1 executive officer.
The birth of a legend can be overlooked, and the life of a legend is something special. Fortunately for Sean Stokes, a legend never dies.
(Rest in peace, warrior.)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: To tell the story of Cpl. Sean Stokes is an honor. This story is not meant to place an individual above his fellow Marines, but to highlight the warrior spirit of the United States Marine Corps and the thousands of young men like Sean Stokes who have shed blood on the battlefield in Iraq. Please pass this tale on to those in need of inspiration, guidance and spirit.
* ‘The 300’ comes from the Spartan Persian battle of Thermopolyae in 480 B.C. There, a small force of Greek soldiers – led by only 300 Spartans – held back an overwhelming force of Persians.