Monday, August 06, 2007

Sean Stokes remembered by grandfather

Panfilo Ventresca can remember every last conversation he had with his grandson - the tenor of their talk, the asides, the jokes, the laughs, the picture with the proud uniform. He recites them again and again, as if preserving those last memories could numb his terrible blow.

Marine Cpl. Sean A. Stokes, 24, of Auburn died a week ago on reconnaissance in Al-Anbar province in Iraq. An improvised bomb blew up underneath him, embedding fragments in his body that surgery could not fix.

In the garage of Ventresca's Fremont home, the dream of his life since coming to America in 1957, the 78-year-old Italian native sat in his barber chair and went through the chronology, trying to bring his grandson to life for a visiting reporter.

Stokes, the son of Ventresca's daughter, Rita, was a good-natured man with the easy grace of a big and fit athlete (6-foot-3). In high school, Stokes played football and baseball. He chose the Marines for a practical reason. He hoped it would give him enough money to afford a few things and then go to college. "He was an honest man," Ventresca said.

As a member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Stokes had seen more than his share of fighting in Iraq in two previous tours. He was awarded two Purple Hearts, suffering injuries to his left side and his ears.

His four-year term was technically up, but his grandfather says his discharge was delayed. "They tell him, in wartime, nobody goes home," said Ventresca, who cut hair for 65 years. "I tell him, Sean, they're right. Nobody goes home."
So on a weekend not so long ago, home on a brief leave, Stokes drove into his grandparents' driveway, the same place he had first visited when he was 2 days old. He was driving the big Ford truck he had bought with his military pay.

His grandmother, Flora, wanted a picture of him in uniform, and so he posed in fatigues with his grandparents. He had his favorite minestrone soup and a "white pizza" - crust with just Parmesan cheese - before departing with his girlfriend to Grass Valley.

He left his truck there and flew to San Diego, where he embarked the next day. He called his grandfather from Sydney, from Singapore and from Sri Lanka. In his last call, the Wednesday before he died, he said he was in Saudi Arabia and expected to be home again in early November.

He had a favor to ask: Could his grandparents call his girlfriend, Nicole, and invite her to Thanksgiving dinner at their house? He wanted to propose to her. And he wanted to make it a surprise. "I said, `Sure, you kidding?' " Ventresca remembered.

Stokes said he expected to come back via Sydney. "OK, you do us a favor, buy us a kangaroo," his grandfather joked. "Don't worry about it," Stokes said, playing along.

With that, the picture went blank. Stokes' mother got word of his death last weekend when three Marines arrived at her door. She knew immediately what it meant. His grandparents learned not long afterward. Last week, Ventresca called a Mercury News editor and asked for the Department of Defense announcement.

Since then, the stubble on his cheeks and the lines under his eyes bear witness to his grief. His story makes me think the losses in Iraq can't be described by numbers or biographies or benchmarks so much as the sundering of a grandparent's love for a grandson.

"I hurt so much for this kid," Ventresca told me. "Too young. An old guy like me, who cares so much? But when they're young like this, why do they have to fight?"

From the San Jose Mercury News

Related Link:
Sean A. Stokes dies 'of wounds suffered from enemy small arms fire'