It isn’t often we come face to face with, or even know of, a true America Hero. Well, we have one and he is one of our own. He has come home at last, retired from the wars, and his name is Charlie “Sam” Stokes. Sam devoted his entire working life to the service of his country and spent much of that life literally on the firing line. We will get to his distinguished service later in this story, but first things first.
Charlie was born in 1938 and raised in tiny Buffalo, Putnam County, West Virginia, located about 25 miles northwest of Charleston along the Kanawha River as it winds it way toward the Ohio River at Point Pleasant. His home was a small, poor, West Virginia river town. Not much there. Not much going for it. Most folks there were there for keeps. Sam’s folks were hard working merchants. They owned a small grocery store and did well enough to get Sam out of Buffalo and into Greenbrier Military School (GMS). They somehow knew this would be an important move for Sam.
By the way, Sam is known as Sam because he got knocked out (brain concussion) in a football game and woke up with temporary amnesia. He didn’t know where he was or who he was, so they started calling him Sam and it stuck. Sam got to GMS and did well in the three years he was there. He was a wrestling champion from Band Company and was known to put a few holds on some of the girls at Greenbrier College for Women (GCW). Sam worked his way up to become one of the 16 Cadet Officers in the school and Executive Officer of the Band Company.
Back in 1956, Charles Edward Stokes Jr. graduated from GMS along with names like Richard “Scot” Andrews, Bob Blair, Otto “Sonny” Boles (deceased), Major General Leo Andy, Robert “Bob” Carlisle, Lewis Chryssikos, Carroll “Thumper” Coleman (deceased), John Brodkorb, Stan Combs, Vince Crouse, John “Jack” Denny (deceased), Charlie Duncan, Bob Faulwetter, Navy Captain Bob Gamba, Dr. William “Billy” Harris (deceased), John Killoran (deceased), John “Mopey” Kivlighan, Joe McGlothlin, Jack Murry (deceased), Stan Nelson, Herb Pearis (College Grad), Dr. Paul Pringle, Bo Queen (deceased), Dr. Tommy Richardson, Navy Captain Deak Roberts, Attorney Duke Schneider, Dave & Dick Searles, Moffette “Sonny” Sensabaugh, Russ “Piggy” Smith (deceased), John “The Greek” Spanos, Bill Waddell (College Grad), Aubrey White, Dr. Sam Wiersteiner, Gary Williams, Morris “Benny” Williams, and Mark Williamson. All these classmates are or have been active in the GMS Alumni Association we have today.
In addition to an appreciation for honesty, dependability, and self-discipline, Sam took with him those strong leadership qualities GMS imparted to us all. Duty, Truth, and Honor were indelibly stamped in his being and he now had the ability to make decisions under pressure along with an appreciation for organization, prioritization, and the timeliness necessary to be an effective leader.
After graduation, we all went our separate ways, but Sam definitely took “the road less traveled by”, (acknowledgment to Robert Frost for using a line from his poem “The Road Not Taken”). Sam’s “Road” started out conventionally by going to West Virginia State College (University now), at Institute, WV, where he graduated with a BA Degree in Mathematics (Minors in English Literature and ROTC) and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC). Little did anyone know then that Colonel Charles E. Stokes Jr. would be one of West Virginia State University’s most distinguished graduates and would inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 1984. Colonel Stokes was even invited to present the Awards Day address, which he did.
With graduation, Sam was in the Army now. There he is in the ground poundin’, belly crawlin’, stinkin’, sweatin’, dirt eatin’ Army with those shavetail shiny gold 2nd Lt bars on his shoulders. But know this, the Army might be all that, but these are the guys and gals with a rifle in their hands that are absolutely essential to all the efforts of all our Armed Forces. The Air Force can drop their bombs and shoot down enemy planes, The Navy can deliver the Army and Marines to foreign shores, drop bombs, shoot down enemy planes and destroy their subs and ships, the Marines can get you a foothold on an enemy beach, but until you can put that soldier and his/her rifle on that ground to take and hold that ground, you don’t have the ground. Sam’s parents didn’t raise any dummy. He was smart. He got into the Intelligence Corps and kept improving his education. He went to numerous service schools (Ranger, Airborne, Jungle Warfare, Master Parachutist, and more). Actually they are too numerous to mention them all, but important ones included the Army Command & General Staff College, Senior Service College, The Foreign Service Institute, and he earned his double major Masters Degree from Louisiana State University in Political Science & History. He would later use his education and experience to actually teach others at several Universities and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY.
But now comes the fun part. Anybody for Special Ops? It is 1964, eight years after he left Greenbrier, and the name “Sam” has long since disappeared as Charlie’s moniker. He is Captain Charlie Stokes now, an Army Captain doing the job usually reserved for a Lt. Colonel. He is an Operations Officer in the Intelligence Corps in charge of the 681st Intelligence Corps Detachment, XVIII Airborne Corps, Dominican Republic (DomRep). In those days, this area of the Caribbean was a total hotbed. The most dangerous time in the history of the world, the Cuban Missile Crisis, had just taken place in late 1962, a little over a year before. Charlie had been down there involved in preparing to insert Army troops into any hostile area during that Crisis. Cuba is now controlled by the Castro Communists. Haiti and the Dominican Republic were always in conflict with hot war threatening to break out at any moment.
The presence of the United States Armed Forces did much to hold down regional hostilities and remind Cuba there would be no spread of Communism in the Caribbean. The U.S. Navy still maintained an Amphibious Ready Squadron of several ships off the coast of Cuba and around Hispaniola (DomRep & Haiti), loaded with Marines and all their gear and weapons, fully capable of making an invasion anywhere. The U.S. Army was in the DomRep and Charlie’s job was to personally brief the Corps Commander (a three star Lt. General) every morning on the Intel status of the DomRep, Haiti, and Cuba. This job had spelled career disaster for several of his predecessors, including a Lt. Colonel and three Majors who were relieved of Command. After that, nobody wanted that job, except Charlie, who wanted it badly, but was initially turned down for being too junior. He was ready to “step up” to the task. They finally gave it to him, and he did it well and was there for the duration of the operation.
There proved to be no rest for Charlie. The world’s attention shifted to the Far East. Next stop for Charlie, the steamy, sweltering jungles of Viet Nam where death could be waiting behind the next stand of bamboo. In 1967, Charlie was given command of the 181st Military Intelligence (MI) Detachment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. Charlie is still a Captain, but his job was normally assigned to a Major. He also had operational control of a sister Vietnamese MI Company. He didn’t say whether that was a burden or a blessing. He was in charge of the Long Range Intel Platoons. These are all specially trained Ranger Units that go in-country to get intelligence. They also have been known to dispose of some of the enemy on these trips.
There was this one time Charlie and his team was out on a recon mission and ran into the enemy who was there in superior force. The ensuing firefight wasn’t going well and they had to fight their way out to the helo landing zone extraction point. The LZ was hot and they were still fighting as they crawled into the helos. Charlie’s helo was hit as it took off and had to land. Fortunately, the glide path of the helo got them about a mile from the firefight. The Army is famous for not leaving anyone behind, and Charlie and his team were no exception. The other helos landed around the downed bird and the Soldiers, with nothing more than hand signals, formed a perimeter until Charlie and the others were safely extracted.
Charlie and his unit made two major raids and four smaller insertions into enemy territory before his luck ran out. On the 7th recon mission, Charlie got hit in the upper thigh by a round from an AK-47. He was treated for two months in various hospitals in Viet Nam, Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and in Japan. The Doctors repeated told him this was his ticket home. Charlie would have none of that. As Charlie put it, “There truly is a Band of Brothers in War”. As soon as he was well enough, Charlie hobbled back to his command and his Band of Brothers. On subsequent flights back into battle, he said his leg was in extreme pain. There was actually nothing wrong, the pain was all psychological.
The Tet Counter Offensive in 1968 was particularly dangerous and one of the few times Charlie actually disobeyed an order. His 101st Airborne was engaged in a firefight near the Cambodian border when they were ordered to stop fighting there and deploy somewhere near the Capital of Saigon. The problem was they couldn’t get away. The Viet Cong had taken control of the airstrip and had mortared the runway so the Air Force couldn’t land. Finally, the airstrip was partially retaken. Charlie’s unit was ordered to prepare to “break out” and fill in the foxholes so the Cong couldn’t use them later. Charlie got his troops ready to move, but, as the commander on the scene, he made a decision to disobey the order to fill in the foxholes. He knew how long it would take to fill in those holes and re-dig them, if necessary. It was a good thing he disobeyed the order. Dark was coming fast and his unit was told to re-establish the defense for the night. Charlie put his troops back in the deep foxholes just before the mortars came from the Viet Cong. Charlie’s unit suffered no injuries. The units next to them didn’t have time to re-dig deep foxholes and took casualties.
Charlie and his First Sergeant spent the night going from foxhole to foxhole to check on their troops. Charlie extolled the virtues of his troops, calling them beautiful American soldiers. He said these same kids back in the States in clean clothes, with plenty to eat, and things to do would have found something to complain about. But there they were with little food (crackers mostly), stinking in their own sweat, filthy dirty and laying in muddy foxholes, and not one of them complained. They had their weapons, enough water, plenty of ammo, and leaders that lead by example and cared for them.
Charlie earned a lot of medals and awards during his combat days. Foremost among them is the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. Next is the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor and bravery in combat. Charlie has also earned the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
After Viet Nam, Charlie was promoted to Major and served as Intelligence Advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Honduras during the 1969 war, the so-called Soccer War, between Honduras and El Salvador. The war had little to do with Soccer and much to do with unrest in El Salvador due to poor economic conditions. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorians immigrated over to Honduras. This was a great burden on the Hondurans. Tempers flared during Soccer games between the two countries and war subsequently broke out. The American Embassy (Charlie) was heavily involved in the effort of the Organization of American States (OAS) to quell the fighting.
In the early 70s, Charlie started getting teaching assignments. He was sent to South Korea where he taught night classes in International Relations for the University of Maryland Overseas Program. During the day, he was Commander of a Special Intelligence Company at the time of discovery of the infiltration tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. The North Koreans painted the walls of the tunnels black and said they were coal mines. Of course, there was no coal found. The North Koreans attempted nine different incursions during the early 70’s. None were successful and most of the North Koreans involved were killed.
In the mid-70s, Major Stokes was invited to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. He was selected to be the Principal for Latin America Affairs because of his double major Masters Degree in Political Science and History, and his incredible background of service on five assignments in Latin America all of which involved some element of strife (i.e. revolution, military coup, government overthrow, riots, war between adjacent countries, civil strife, Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.), and the fact that he also spoke more Spanish than Hola, Buenos dias, Cerveza por favor, gracias and Salud. Charlie spoke fluent Spanish and taught the advanced students in their Senior Year subjects like Advanced International Relations, Comparative Political Systems, and Governments & Politics of Latin America. He said it was one of the most dynamic and exhaustive periods of his life. After West Point, Charlie was an Adjunct Professor in the History Department at his Alma Mater, West Virginia State University, Institute, WV.
In the later 70’s, Lieutenant Colonel Stokes was given command of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion based at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Their operations were activities designed to minimize civil interference and maximize civil support during military operations. The 96th was the Army’s only active Civil Affairs Battalion and Charlie received high marks for his battalion’s performance on missions in Europe, South Korea, and South America.
In mid-1983, Charlie was promoted to full Colonel (Officer Paygrade O-6). That’s the one with the Eagles on the shoulders, folks. It’s the rank just under the General/Admiral ranks, and these people run Army/Marine Regiments, small bases, and major defense projects. The same rank in the Navy (Captain) runs bases, nuclear aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and major Sea/Air Systems programs.
Charlie’s first job as a Colonel was as Defense Attache in the Guatemalan Embassy. His most important job was providing high-level analysis regarding the Guatemala government and its anticipated future relationship with the United States. He reported directly to the Ambassador, conducted daily briefings to Congressional delegations, VIPs, the International Press, and conducted extensive coordination with the Guatemalan Senior Cabinet members, in the Spanish language. This turned out to be a time of great danger. Many Central American countries were in danger of falling to Communism. Charlie found out the recently elected government was under siege and about to be overthrown by a Coup d Etat. Charlie reported this to the Ambassador and other Senior Officials at the Embassy. They refused to report this to the Department of State in Washington for fear of being wrong. Charlie agonized over this for about an hour. After all, he was new, having only been in the Embassy a couple of months. Finally, when it was obvious nothing was going to be done, Charlie picked up a local phone and called the War Room at the Pentagon. He was highly commended for doing that.
In keeping with the old axiom that “no good deed will go unpunished”, Charlie found himself in great danger soon after making his report. He was targeted by a 12-man team, trained in another country, who had orders to terminate him with extreme prejudice (assassinate). Four of those were killed in the initial confrontation, but eight of them escaped and it wasn’t over. Charlie had to play the shell game of moving around (i.e. a night here, three night there, etc) for several months. It was an extremely traumatic time.
In mid-1983, Charlie was assigned to be Deputy Commander, Special Warfare Center & School, Ft. Bragg, NC. His job was to oversee the curricula for all Army Special Operations Forces with emphasis on using Special Ops in the global war against terrorism.
1984, Charlie was inducted into the Hall of Fame at West Virginia State College (now University) where he had graduated so many years ago. They even asked him to give the main address to all present, which he did.
Colonel Charles Edward Stokes Jr. long and distinguished military career ended in early 1987. Counting all the years, including ROTC, he served over 29 years in the U.S. Army, and if you count the three years of Army ROTC at Greenbrier Military School, Charlie was in the Army for over 32 years.