Choosing Triumph Over Tragedy

by Kari Apted

Wounded in a suicide bombing that killed five of her fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, Lakeia Stokes refuses to be defined by that fateful day in November 2016.

You can call Lakeia Stokes a former basketball star. You can call her a daughter, a friend or an inspirational speaker. Just be prepared for disagreement if you call the humble Purple Heart and Presidential Coin recipient a certain four-letter word.

“I don’t think of myself as a hero,” Stokes said.

“I didn’t do anything heroic.”

Most people disagree with Stokes’ self-assessment, and she concedes that she has to accept how other people view her, particularly in her hometown of Covington. She grew up in Newton County, attending Ficquett Elementary, Cousins Middle and Newton High schools. Her lean, athletic frame was always a natural fit for sports, and she excelled at softball, track and basketball. Stokes shined brightest on the basketball court at Newton HighSchool, where she was a four-time all-region selection and an all-state performer as a junior and senior. She received many other honors, which included being named to the state’s Super 10 team and chosen as the Region 8-AAAA “Player of the Year.” Stokes averaged a staggering28 points per game during her final season in the blue and white.

College recruiters from across the country took note, and she accepted a full-ride scholarship to play basketball at Clemson University.There, she piled up nearly 1,000 career points and was selected First TeamAll-Atlantic Coast Conference as a senior.

It was a natural next step for Stokes to turn pro after her collegiate career ended, and she played professional basketball for a short time in Greece and Switzerland. However, she did not feel she was in good enough shape to compete at that level long-term. Between pro stints, Stokes worked in other sports-related jobs as a trainer, an Amateur Athletic Union coach and a basketball agent. She also played in semi-professional leagues.

When Stokes decided to go in a different direction and pursue her Master’s degree, her cousin encouraged her to join the Air Force to reap the college benefits. Stokes joined the Army instead and soon left for basic training in Columbia, South Carolina. In 2016, approximately two years into her enlistment, Stokes’ brigade left on a nine-month deployment toAfghanistan. While many would have been apprehensive about serving in a war zone, the Human Resource Specialist did not feel overly concerned about her assignment.

“As a soldier, you understand that there are risks, but we were only there for support,” Stokes said.

“I didn’t think anything bad would happen. I was just there to do my job and make it back home safely.”

“God had a different plan for me than I had for myself, and I plan to give back from my experience. God doesn’t waste hurt, and I believe He saved my life for a reason.”

Lakeia Stokes

On Veterans Day in 2016, her life changed forever in a flash. While walking to the gymnasium, Stokes and members of her unit were targeted by a suicide bomber. The explosion killed five soldiers and critically wounded Stokes and several others. She has clear memories of the attack.

“I was conscious the whole time,” Stokes said.

“I instantly started praying.”

Stokes sustained serious damage to her left arm. Despite extensive rehabilitation, she continues to suffer from limited functionality and continuous pain in that limb. Even so, she remains defiant: “It doesn’t stop me from trying anything.” As with many combat veterans, the psychological toll on Stokes has proven equally as burdensome as the physical struggle, perhaps greater.

“I battle with depression, anxiety, nightmares, insomnia, anger and isolation,” she said, all while doing her best to press forward day by day. “I try to take advantage of life, because you never know when it will end. Stay positive despite what you have going on—because it could be worse.”

Although she admits she wrestles with survivor’s guilt,Stokes works hard to maintain a healthy perspective on what she has gone through: “I don’t like to compare my injuries or situation to anyone else because everyone handles things differently.” She maintains contact with almost everyone involved in the Veterans Day attack. “We’re all survivors,” Stokes said. “We’re here for a reason, and we’re not giving up.”

On March 3, 2017, the wounded soldier returned home after receiving extensive treatment and rehabilitation services at Fort Hood inTexas. Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes and City of CovingtonMayor Ronnie Johnston declared it “Sgt. Lakeia Stokes Day,” and hundreds of Newton County residents joined on the Square to honor her service to the United States. Even after receiving a hero’s welcome and ceremony, Stokes remains modest about all she has endured.

“God had a different plan for me than I had for myself, and I plan to give back from my experience,” she said. “God doesn’t waste hurt, and I believe He saved my life for a reason.”

To that end, Stokes has created a nonprofit organization called the “Stokes Triumph Over Tragedy Foundation” and expects the 501c3process to be completed soon. She plans for the foundation to provide scholarships and other benefits to children in need. In early 2018, her budding foundation hosted an outreach event for Newton County children that featured games, prizes and a cookout. Ten years from now, Stokes sees herself traveling around the world, sharing her story through speaking engagements and encouraging others to persevere through adversity.

“I will continue to triumph over this tragedy and spread positivity through my words,” she said. Stokes points toward her upbringing inCovington when asked to name her personal hero. “I admired my grandmother, my mother and my aunts and uncles, so my family members are my heroes.”

Poet Maya Angelou once said, “I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” Stokes may not consider herself a hero, but her winning attitude through hardship fits the definition.

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