Stokes was part of a battalion of U. S. Marines assigned to provide security for an artillery company. As he walked a perimeter, checking on his men, he had no idea that something was about to happen that would change his life forever.
Today, Stokes is one of many Port Aransas military veterans whose service will be saluted at the annual Veterans Day program at Port Aransas High School on Friday, Nov. 11. (See related story, this issue.)
Stokes said he always attends the program.
“That’s one of the only times of the year when veterans get back with each other and kind of reminisce about the experiences they went through,” said Stokes, now a 69-year-old vice president at First Community Bank in Portland. “We’re the only ones that understand each other. Other folks really don’t, especially if you were in some kind of combat situations.”
Stokes grew up in Falfurrias and attended Texas A&M University at College Station and Texas A&I University at Kingsville. (Texas A&I now Texas A& M University- Kingsville.)
At A&M, he signed up to start serving in the Marines as soon as he graduated from college.
Just after getting a bachelor’s degree in business, at A&I, Stokes was commissioned a second lieutenant in January 1966. He was 24 years old. He wanted to be a career miliary man.
“My intention when I went into the Marine Corps was to stay in the military,” Stokes said. “ The only thing that changed that was my (later) getting hurt. I liked the military. I liked the structure.”
Stokes spent a year training in Pensacola, Fla., then attended officers’ school at Quantico, Va. By the time he finished officers’ school in November 1967, he was a first lieutenant.
Stokes got orders to go to Vietnam. Arriving in the country in December 1967, he was assigned to the Third Battalion of the Third Marine Division. He ended up being commander of an 81 mm mortar platoon.
For his first five months in Vietnam, he was stationed at the southern edge of the demilitarized zone that separated North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
“Our duty was to kind of keep watching,” Stokes said. Americans “ had cleared a space about 200 yards wide between the boundaries of north and south Vietnam, and our duty was, we were up there, kind of guarding against people coming from up north to south. We had bunkers built with sandbags. We got artillery fire occasionally from the North Vietnamese side. We returned fire from our side.”
Stokes and his fellow Marines also forged into North Vietnam on intelligence-gathering missions.
“The missions were to go into North Vietnam until we met resistance, and kind of try to figure out how much resistance was there,” Stokes said. “We wanted to know where they were, spot them on a map and turn around and come back.”
After five months, Stokes was made executive officer of Lima Company, part of the Third Battalion. A month later, he was made company commander.
Stokes and his fellow marines got into firefights every time they headed into North Vietnam. But the worst one he can remember took place one night near their encampment in South Vietnam.
“We did get into a pretty serious battle, with exchange of fire and so forth,” Stokes said. “It was a pretty serious battle. I don’t recall the casuis alty numbers, but I think we took several prisoners.”
Not every day in Vietnam was full of shooting.
“There were times when it was difficult, and times when it was almost like being at home,” Stokes said. “It could be like life in the states. There were times when we had maybe a company function. At nighttime, we’d all get together and have a meal together, as a group, rather than as individuals, or a couple of guys had guitars and would play music. There were ways to get your mind off where you were.”
On July 28, 1968, Stokes and his men had orders to move to a forward position at the top of a hill. Their mission was to provide security for an artillery company that was moving in on the hill to provide firepower for an operation further ahead.
“We moved in by helicopter, the whole battalion,” Stokes said. “We immediately set about forming a defensive perimeter around the artillery pieces.”
Stokes walked the perimeter with a radio operator, checking the lines, making sure everyone had dug in and set up. The two were walking along a dirt trail through countryside that looked a lot like the Texas Hill Country. The hills were covered with tall grasses and scrub brush.
Stokes checked on a foxhole with two or three Marines in it, then walked about more 20 yards down the trail when it happened. He stepped on a landmine.
“All I remember is falling,” Stokes said. “You’d think the pain would be excruciating, but it really wasn’t. So, the only reaction I remember is falling, rolling down that hill, probably 10, 15 or 20 feet.”
A second later, the radio operator stepped on another mine, and he fell, too.
Stokes had lost part of his right foot. The radio operator was hurt too, but his wounds weren’t quite as bad.
Stokes didn’t lose consciousness. A nearby chaplain started toward him to offer help, but Stokes waved him off.
“I was telling him to get everyone back,” Stokes recalled. “He was trying to come to me, and I told him, ‘No, don’t do that, because there is no way to know where these things are.”
Somehow, a corpsman made his way safely to Stokes and the radio operator. They were taken away on stretchers and flown by helicopter to a first aid station.
Stokes later was transferred to a field hospital in Da Nang, then a hospital in Japan and then back to the states. He spent time at a military hospital in Oakland, Calif.
A NEW LIFE
It was in Da Nang that his foot was amputated. After earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a combat V, Stokes was honorably discharged from the Marines as a captain in 1969.
The loss of his foot meant he wouldn’t have a career in the military, as he’d planned. He’d have to find a new life.
But he wasn’t bitter.
“I felt like I was extremely lucky, even though my situation wasn’t the average situation,” Stokes said. “Not everyone loses a limb, but then you stop and think about how many guys didn’t come back from that war. … I guess I was just glad to be back and alive.”
He went home to Falfurrias and got a job as office manager at a Chevrolet dealership. He stayed with the company for five or six years, then bought an auto parts store in Falfurrias and ran it for about 12 years.
Stokes got married in 1971 to Pat Waters. They had three children: Katie, James and Mark.
Stokes got into banking in the mid-1980s. He and his family moved to Port Aransas in 1995.
Today, Stokes is working at his fourth bank. He said he enjoys his work. He feels like he has made a good life for himself outside of the military.
“I was one of those guys who was able to grow up in a community, a small community, go off to school, college, the military and actually come back to that small community and be able to make a life for myself,” Stokes said. “I moved to Port Aransas, and that’s still another small community that we were able to get into, and it’s been a good life. I don’t have any complaints.”
About five years ago, Stokes and his sons toured Washington, D.C. They visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial known as The Wall.
“ That was a pretty emotional experience for me,” Stokes said, adding that he asked one of his sons to make a rubbing of the part of the wall that lists the name of Jerry McDonald, the only Port Aransas resident who died in the Vietnam War.
“I still have that in one of my scrapbooks,” he said.