Waynesboro High School graduate Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Stokes’ homecoming from Beirut was marked with the dignity of a military ceremony and the grief of an entire county.
Jeffrey’s body arrived at Augusta’s Bush Field Airport on board a jet plane accompanied by a Marine escort.Waiting in the terminal were his father, mother, sisters and brothers.
U.S. Marines went on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon in 1982 under President Ronald Reagan. According to Jeffrey’s brother, Rev. Robert Stokes, Jeffrey had two weeks left in Lebanon when he returned to Beirut after a short leave.
While Jeffrey was sleeping on October 23, 1983, a truck filled with 2,000 pounds of explosives drove into the U.S. military compound and detonated, killing 241 service members, including Jeffrey and 219 of his fellow Marines. It was the deadliest day in the history of the Marine Corps.
The Hezbollah, an extremist Shiite Muslim group, was believed to be responsible for the deadly attack, with the support of the Iranian government. Nineteen-year-old Jeffrey was buried with full military honors November 5, 1983 at Daniel Grove Baptist Church, the same day he was expected to return from the mission alive. Hundreds of friends and relatives attended his closed-casket funeral. As a community, Burke County mourned the loss of one of their own.
“Jeff was free-spirited,” Robert recalled fondly. “He played football and he was the class clown. He was also a great writer.” Jeffrey was such a poet that it was not uncommon for him to assist his peers in winning over the hearts of their female interests with letters that he wrote for them.
In spite of that soft interior, he joined the Marines because he believed he possessed the mentality to meet the tough challenges that branch of the military required.
“They don’t fear anything because they are Marines,” Robert said. “If you are one of those guys, you are trained to be tough.”
U.S. forces withdrew from Lebanon in Feb. 1984. Robert said it took some time for him to accept that the United States did not avenge the deaths. It was his spirituality that eventually brought him to a place of inner peace.
“It was devastating,” he said of his youngest brother’s death. “It was hard.”
Struggling to accept what happened, Robert said initially he was not able to cry over the loss. One day while in the shower, he says Jeffrey came to him in spirit and asked him to “let him go.” Robert says he cried as he released the internal pain. He has shed many tears since then, especially when he pulls out a scrapbook containing newspaper articles, photos and the last letters Jeffrey wrote to the family.
Nearly thirty-nine years later, they continue to honor the sacrifice Jeffrey made. They place flowers next to a cross at his grave on Memorial Day. They honor him on his birthday. Until the pandemic put a halt on gatherings, they continued to meet yearly in October at Marine Corps Camp Base, Camp Lejeune, to honor those who lost their lives in the deadly Beirut incident.
Over the years, the family has found comfort in meeting people who served with Jeffrey. They share stories involving the last months of his life. Often the stories fuse together memories of Jeffrey with the time that he was separated from loved ones during his military service.
Decades later, there are still new stories to tell. It’s important to Robert that Jeffrey never be forgotten. A portrait of him hangs in Robert’s athome office. He wonders what Jeffrey would have done with his life had he not died at such a young age.
“We talk,” Robert said. “Every day I come into this office, he and I have a conversation in spirit. I miss my brother.”
Memorial Day began as a way to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. The first celebration May 30, 1868, originally known as Decoration Day, was held at Arlington National Cemetery with a crowd of 5,000 people decorating the graves of over 20,000 military personnel with flowers.