November 11, 2023 : By Bryson Gordon - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
David Stokes, a Lynchburg-area veteran who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1966-67, has always been known to be quick to help out his fellow armed forces brothers and sisters.
In a recent interview, Stokes described himself as the type of person who, if he sees something that needs to be done and everybody else is standing around, is the first to step up to do it.
“Matter of fact,” he added, “my wife tells me I need to go back to work so I’d have more free time.”
For all of his work in helping veterans across Central Virginia, as well as for his decorated military career, Stokes was honored at halftime of Saturday’s Flames Football Military Appreciation Game as the 2023 recipient of the George Rogers Champion of Freedom Award.
Each year since 2010, Liberty University has awarded the George Rogers Champion of Freedom Award to a man or woman who served in the United States Armed Forces and went above the call of duty, displaying extraordinary heroism while in the service and continuing to serve as an outstanding ambassador in their community. Nominations are collected from the Liberty community.
The award’s namesake honors Purple Heart and Prisoner of War Medal recipient George Rogers, who was taken as a POW by the Japanese during World War II. Rogers survived the Bataan Death March and went on to become the CEO of Thomas Road Baptist Church’s weekly television program, “Old-Time Gospel Hour,” in 1974 before finishing his career at Liberty as Vice President of Finance and Administration. Rogers passed away in 2019 at the age of 100.
A Lynchburg resident, Stokes was drafted at the age of 19, and upon completion of basic training he was sent to intelligence school to study for what would ultimately become his military occupation: an order of battle specialist working on the intelligence side.
“Every time I’m invited to go to schools to speak, the first thing the kids ask me is, ‘Did you hold a gun?’ And I’d tell them, ‘Yes and no,’ and I’d get a lot of weird looks,” Stokes said. “Did I take the rifles and pull the trigger? No, but I was probably responsible for a lot through the intelligence of ground combat, artillery, naval bombardment, and air power from the Navy, Marines, and Air Force.”
But that didn’t stop Stokes from being in the midst of combat. The Army veteran’s first and last nights in Vietnam were bookended by mortar attacks on the barracks where he stayed.
On his first night in Saigon, Vietnam, he ended up under his bed with a mattress on his back after his barracks sustained a mortar attack in August of 1966.
“On my last night, I’m on the third flight, and the first two come and go,” Stokes said. “We look up in the sky and the landing lights (of our plane) come on and our hearts got to racing because we were finally able to go home to the land of all-night generators across the big pond. But just as soon as (the plane’s) wheels touched the tarmac, there was another mortar attack.”
The pilot pulled back, Stokes said, sending sparks all throughout the runway. Twenty minutes later, the attack ended and the troops were on their way back home.
“I love to tell people, on my first night in the country there was a mortar attack,” Stokes said. “My last night out in the country, another mortar attack. So we saw a lot.”
For his time in Vietnam, Stokes received several medals for his service, including the National Defense Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal.
But it’s also Stokes’ work as a civilian upon return that has set him apart for this award, having played an integral part in easing life back home for many veterans who have returned to Lynchburg from various wars and conflicts over the years.
Locally, Stokes is a charter member and director for the Lynchburg Area Veterans Council, which provides numerous resources and events for veterans in the Lynchburg area; an executive board member of the American Legion Post 16; has worked with the Lynchburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to host events celebrating Vietnam veterans; assists annually with the Wreaths Across America event, where Christmas wreaths are placed on the headstones of thousands of American fallen heroes; and has raised money and awareness to celebrate other local veterans in the area, perhaps none more notable than Desmond T. Doss, who Stokes helped commemorate with a marker at downtown Lynchburg’s Monument Terrace.
Through Stokes’ work with the Lynchburg Area Veterans Council, the group purchased the childhood home of Doss, whose life story of being the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic acts during the Battle of Okinawa was famously portrayed in the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” and turned it into a place for homeless veterans to call their own.
In 2017, Stokes won the George Stewart Taylor III Award for his contributions to the civic and cultural betterment of the community from the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, and in 2019, he was named the recipient of the National Volunteer Veteran of the Year from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
For Stokes, his contributions to the Lynchburg veterans community is about giving all veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, the recognition that has been “long overdue” for them.
Remarking on the reception Vietnam veterans received upon returning home from the war, Stokes recalled going out in Lynchburg and being surprised.
“I remember my first Friday night I went out and people came up to me and said, ‘Where’ve you been? We haven’t seen you in forever,’” Stokes said. “And I told them we just got back from Vietnam and they’d just back off, kind of like you were contagious and turned their back on you.”
“When you got out of the service,” he added, “you did one of two things: You took the uniform off and put it in the back of your closet and closed the door, or you threw it away because nobody wanted to know about your experience.”
These days, particularly in Lynchburg, Stokes said that has completely changed and that Lynchburg has become a very friendly place for veterans of all different conflicts.
“I’m proud to say that Lynchburg is very friendly, especially with the students and military affairs department over at Liberty. This place is very supportive of veterans.”
Stokes said he could recall a few memories of the award’s namesake, George Rogers, notably when Rogers served as the grand marshal of the Veterans Day Parade held by the Lynchburg Veterans Council. He also had the privilege of serving in the Patriot Guard during Rogers’ funeral in 2019.
“(Rogers) was a remarkable man to begin with,” Stokes said. “And when Liberty started the award in his name to recognize these service members … it’s really well deserved (for Rogers).”
Knowing the incredible reputation of its namesake, Stokes said he is completely humbled to be this year’s award recipient.
“It’s awesome to be selected,” he said. “I know there’s other people that have probably done a lot more than I do, or did, that should be recognized. But it’s such an honor to be selected for this award.”
Read about the previous George Rogers Champion of Freedom Award winners on the award’s website.