By Cate Pilgrim and David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
Stockton the Marine; on the ground in the Middle East
It was a hot day in mid-September, 2006. A few minutes before, Lance Corporal Stockton, now a sophomore Government major at Patrick Henry College, had been out with his unit on a patrol not far from the Euphrates River. An Iraqi man had approached his group asking for help. Stockton was a machine gunner in the Marines, not a surgeon or a doctor. When needed, he filled in as his unit’s “combat lifesaver,” which is simply a secondary medic with a pair of hands, a bag of medical supplies and a rough knowledge of what to do for common injuries. On this patrol, his unit had not brought their primary medic, or “corpsman,” so it was 20-year-old Stockton who followed the distressed man through a doorway and into a shabby room.
The room was crowded with aunts and cousins, all surrounding a whimpering child. She was cradled in her mother’s lap, with her legs curled up beneath her. Stockton was not sure what was wrong, until the girl’s father grabbed her dress and pulled it up to her shoulders. Beneath her dress, the girl was covered with burns from ankles to torso. Stockton could see she was in pain. He also could see that this father loved his daughter, loved her enough to expose her not only to a non-Muslim and a foreign soldier, but also to a male.
“We need to take a minute here,” Stockton called out to his Corporal. Then he did something he had never done before while on duty: he unsnapped his chin-strap and took off his helmet. He removed his gloves. He set his M16 aside and rolled up his sleeves. He wanted the family to know that he respected their trust.
The girl, maybe 7 years old, had been burned by a flash flame from the propane stove, and she had curled her legs up in pain. “We need to straighten her legs,” Stockton gestured to the mother and father. “Hold her tight.” They held her while with one fast motion Stockton straightened the right leg. At the sudden increase of pain, the child began to scream and weep. It was all Stockton could do to control his own emotions, but her parents did not let go and Stockton straightened the left leg.
He quickly began wrapping her legs in a gel-saturated cloth, standard issue to all Marines. The cloth wraps are coated with a cooling, novacaine gel, but Stockton knew it would take several painful moments before the child experienced any relief. At the first application of the wrap, the child screamed louder. “The thought running through my head was, ‘Lord, let me take her pain. Put it in my legs because I can handle it. She can’t,’” Stockton recalled.
By this time, his unit had been in one place too long; they needed to leave. Stockton finished wrapping the sobbing child and then handed her parents two more packs of bandages, motioning that after three days they needed to redo them. Hurriedly, Stockton re-gloved, jammed on his helmet, grabbed his rifle and started jogging after his unit. Yet before he had gotten very far, the little girl came running out of the house, her bandaged legs just visible under her dress. There were tear-tracks dried on her face, but the pain had been replaced with gratitude. She threw her arms around Lance Corporal Stockton, her head coming just even with his bullet proof plate, and said, “Shukrun, shukrun.”
Thank you, thank you.
A mosque in the midday sun
Now entering his sophomore year, Stockton is enjoying the summer working for the College’s IT (Information Technology) Department. “I came here because I wanted a Christian education,” he says. “And I came for the simple fact that I want to be prepared for whatever the Lord wants me to do. If I am a leader, I’m a leader. If I am a servant, I’m a servant.”
Having finished his freshmen year at PHC, Stockton views the past nine months as both a fun and somewhat shocking transition from the military.
“No longer was I physically training and using the quick-thinking drills, skills, and exercises of on-the-ground military combat,” he explains. “Starting at PHC, I had to re-learn how to think abstractly and wrap my mind around large concepts from a book and articulately discuss and write about it. It was humbling, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Humbling, he explained, as in: “I was older than kids who were graduating but who knew ten times more than I did. I could sit down with friends who were seniors, juniors, and sophomores, but who could talk fluently about political theory or the things they were learning in Freedom’s Foundations (PHC’s core government class). In the Marines, I was one of the senior corporals with hundreds of guys beneath me in rank. But here I was at the bottom of the totem pole, in some cases two or three years older but totally amazed at how much some of these students knew.”
No doubt many PHC students were amazed to learn the unlikely path Stockton traveled from Iraq to PHC. Having experienced the full range of sniper-fire, roadside-bombs-exploding, death-defying combat situations in his two tours of the insurgency-fraught neighborhoods and roads from Ramadi to Fallujah to the Syrian border, Stockton attempted to sign up for yet a third deployment.
“I tried deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan nine times after finishing my second tour,” he recalled, “but every time, either through lost e-mails or missed phone calls over several months, every request was blocked. It was so frustrating; normally all you have to say, ‘I want to go,’ and you’re on your way. I kept asking myself, ‘Why? I’m a two-time combat vet with tons of experience on the ground; why can’t I go and lead Marines in Iraq?’ I finally realized that God had another plan.”
Stockton the civilian; as a Patrick Henry College freshman
“I was bored in Iraq, so I literally read every page of PHC’s website. I became very excited. The core curriculum inspired me, seeing that I could study constitutional law and the classics and Freedom’s Foundations, digging into the roots of western civilization. Other schools I was looking at had liberal philosophy or sociology classes that I didn’t want to take. I didn’t think I could afford it, but I applied, knowing my SAT scores were below the average here. In my acceptance letter, however, nothing was said about academics. But someone was evidently impressed by my leadership credentials.” Stockton had also been an Eagle Scout in high school, serving on the Executive Council for the Boy Scouts in Montana.
“I could have made the Marines a career,” he says, looking back. “But I wanted to come to a school, not for a career or a job, but where I could learn to learn about philosophy, economics, political theory, a place where I could learn how to write. That I’ve gotten, and surprisingly, I also learned that I could compete here academically.”
Realizing that he is still in beginning stages of his adventure with the Lord, Stockton sees himself going to law school and perhaps entering politics back home in Montana. Ultimately, he confides, “I have no idea what the Lord’s doing, but it’s exciting to watch it unfold. I loved the Marines and my time there, helping to bring freedom and safety and justice to those people. I’ve realized that I can do that in law or the political arena, too. I can fight for it with other weapons, and one of those is the education I’m getting here at PHC.”