BOONE, N.C. (BP)–In dire need of money and discipline, Brian Stokes enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served two tours of duty in Iraq. He earned a Purple Heart and an achievement medal for combat valor, but knowing all along that his greatest security was in Christ.
Stokes, 27, found himself at East Carolina University in 1998 as his parents were ending their marriage. But academic struggles and an injury during his first summer of football practice led to a medical release from school.
He spent the next two years searching, working as a short-order cook, washing cars, distancing himself from his family and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
“One morning I woke up at 7 a.m., the electricity had been turned off and I had no money,” Stokes recounted. “I decided I was tired of living that way. I knew I needed something in my life to drastically change it, more than anything I could do.”
Once he joined the Marines, Stokes rose to the rank of sergeant and participated in peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, humanitarian efforts in Kenya and fighting in Afghanistan before moving on to Iraq for a total of four years of service.
Stokes attended church only once while at East Carolina, but when he got to boot camp he didn’t miss a Sunday, having become seriously committed to changing his life and making his family proud of him. In Iraq, he attended church services whenever possible.
“I asked God to protect me and my friends. With God beside me, I had no fear in combat,” he said. “I also focused on my family that had been missing in my life for two years. I knew if I dedicated it to Him, I would get back to them.”
In retrospect, what Stokes witnessed on the ground in Iraq led Stokes to believe the mission was worthwhile.
“Iraq needed something. What we as soldiers experience on the frontline during battle is what the Iraqi people experienced daily under Saddam Hussein,” he said. “I felt like I was on another planet. You become numb. There’s no humanity. It’s no way for anyone to live.”
Stokes said the media fails to report many of the positive stories emerging from Iraq. He cited, for example, the humanitarian efforts that the United States continues to support and the provision of generators for towns without electricity. Now there is running water in communities where there was none before, he said, and children can play in soccer fields.
A sense of dignity has been restored to the Iraqi people, Stokes said, and the presence of American troops there reminded him that there is still good in the world.
When he joined the Marines, Stokes had a goal of earning enough money to go back to college. So when he left the military in October 2004, Stokes earned a spot as a walk-on with the Appalachian State University football team in Boone, N.C.
After eight years away from the game, Stokes proved his worth and became an integral member of the Mountaineers’ special teams on kickoff and also as a tight end.
Under the direction of head coach Jerry Moore, Stokes thrived on the field, executing several crucial tackles on kickoff returns. He also performed well in the classroom, becoming a member of the school’s academic honor roll. With his help, the team won two national AA football championships and secured the nation’s longest Division 1 football winning streak at 14 games last season. Stokes, now a senior, said the confidence he gained in the military changed the way he played football from his days at East Carolina to his championship seasons with Appalachian State.
“Serving in the military gave me confidence — confidence to not let hard times get the better of me,” he said. “Overcoming some pretty deep holes that I’ve been in, that started with Christ.”
Moore noticed that Stokes was an inspirational role model in the locker room and provided insight into game strategies.
“Brian Stokes brings a hands-on respect to the team,” Moore said. “The players have a great trust and respect for him, a Christian respect. There’s no doubt what he stands for.”
Stokes and his Mountaineer teammates continue to meet for a weekly Bible study on campus. Recalling how he drifted away from Christ prior to his time at Appalachian State, Stokes credits the Bible study and his teammate Nick Cardwell with showing him that he should never be too busy to spend time with Christ each day.
Stokes’ eligibility for playing college football ended last season because of his age, so now he is focusing on finishing his degree in criminal justice and considering a career in federal law enforcement.
Luanne Byrd is a freelance writer living in the Atlanta area.