Sunday, April 11, 2004

Easter Sunday tribute, a fallen soldier



I. SIX DEGREES OF FREEDOM
In the recent Sadr-militia uprising, one of the soldiers that died was Michael Mitchell. He was the step-brother of a Ms. Steele of Visalia who survives him. My only connection to Mr. Mitchell is that Ms. Steele is also the cousin of the wife of one of my friends. I never met Mr. Mitchell, but I felt moved enough to say a few words. His death was reported in the print edition of the NYT and in depth in the Porterville Recorder in California.

I asked through my friend if Ms. Steele would mind if I did a small tribute on my blog to Mitchell. Having gotten the permission, I will say a few words about this man who died far away and whom I myself never met. The entire Porterville article is reproduced below for reference in part III.

II. A FALLEN SOLDIER

When someone dies, it often hits us in such a way to take our breath away and make us question our world. It was that way for me when my father died unexpectedly in a car accident. All at once, questions emerge and these questions make us review our lives and most especially the way we have treated the one who has passed.

I did not know Mr. Mitchell, but I have known many soldiers both in service and past. From the young scrubbed faces of the young ROTC officers that pass through my classrooms, to the old veterans of the older conflicts that sometimes share stories with me I have known many soldiers as they passed through my life. In many little ways their paths cross mine unexpectedly such as a friend of mine serves as a Military Policeman now in the service and just last summer a woman I was stuck at an airport turning out to be a doctor returning from doing a rotation in a military hospital, and I have found vets willing to share their stories in places as varied as late night truck drivers and teaching classrooms of little kids.

Some themes have emerged in my experience, and one of them is that there is something about military service - the discipline, the patriotism, the camradrie of the espirit de corps - something almost undefinable that reveals the best and worst about a person. More often the rigors of military life shapes them for the better. No soldier I've met was perfect, and all too often soldiers have just complaints about their officers, yet nonetheless they stayed and there was a reason why they stayed.

I think perhaps for many of them, reading between the lines of many conversations through the years, it was as much a desire to make a difference as any other single issue. Surprisingly from tank commanders to Marine forward observers to Navy ensigns, one thing that has struck me about many military people is their uncommon if sometimes rough-edged idealism. It is a credit to our nation, that we can attract such people who risk so much in return for for so little.

In many other nations, the military is a source of oppression or a threat to the political order. Almost uniquely here in America, the military has been overwhelmingly a force for social good over time in spite of its admitted many imperfections. This has been apparent more clearly at no other time than the present, when we have an entirely volunteer recruitment for our armed forces.

Many recruits make less than $15,000 a year and that includes allowances and benefits. Junior officers might make about $25,000 a year. There are educational benefits in addition for service, and if they make it that long - most don't - retirement benefits. It is true though that many young military families rely on donated food, clothes, and food-stamps to supplement their income. Recently, the death-benefit has been raised from about $5000 to now about $12,000 for the families of the deceased.

This is not a very great deal to give your life for, and so we justifiably may conclude that whatever reason many soldiers enlist or become officers is not fortune or fame. For some it is honor, and I know of some who consider military service part of their family tradition. For some it is patriotism, and these are most likely to say if asked why that "Freedom is not free,". For some it is a chance at a better life, for the education benefits or ROTC program may be their only hope at a college education and a decent civilian life. Some seek adventure or didn't know what else to do with their lives, and these in my experience benefit best from the order and discipline of military life that can turn them from impulsive young men and women into responsible mature adults in a rite of passage older than recorded history.

When my own father died, it raised all sorts of questions in my mind and all the conclusions that I had reached over the years seemed overthrown in the light of information unearthed by his untimely passing. I questioned how I had treated him, and how I had taken my father for granted all those years. It was too easy to see his flaws, and too easy to discount the sacrifices he had made on my behalf. He was not a perfect man, and he often was unreasonable but he never was a tyrant and I fear that in retrospect sometimes I treated him that way. I know that though I told him I respected him before he died, that he never knew how much I admired him and that he died without knowing me and me knowing him. The knowledge that I had failed him in life, failed to understand his struggles and in doing so made things harder for him, added a special bite to my tears at his funeral.

Mr. Mitchell was someone I did not know. I did not know his family. I pray for them in their time of bereavement, and I hope that whatever their own feelings about his passing that they are comforted. He seems to have been loved and appreciated before his death, and that is good.

Every life deserves recognition, and its passage should cause each and every one of us to pause and to reconsider our own assumptions. For me, this man's death brings home that I wish our troops the best in Iraq and desperately hope that they succeed. It is hard to do otherwise when the cost of such failure is measured in American lives. This man's death and that of many others means that we cannot throw their lives away for nothing. We must find some meaning and some justice for what we have asked them to die for.

For those who supported the war, I hope they too question not why we went to war but whether we are doing the best that we can to win it. What is most urgent is not the past, but the future. Do our leaders know the cost of the blood they cause to be spilled on the sand in strange lands far away from home? Have they come to grips that they need a better strategy to win, because saying that muddling through is okay is not okay when confronted by the human cost of lives ground up in the status quo?

Do our armed forces all have the most modern bullet-proof vests, and their vehicles proper armoring, and their civilian counterparts the money and authority needed to improve the situation in Iraq in order to quell the disastisfaction that feeds the violence there?

Every time a young man like this dies, it makes me question whether we are doing right by them as they have died - and as they have lived. It is a shame that it took my father's death, to see his cares and his burdens, and to make me weep that I did not think to ease them while he lived. It would be more of a shame however if that death had not made me pause and to reflect. We all should ask if we had done right by those that have now gone on beyond our ability to remedy the past.

I did not know this man, but he died because our nation asked the ultimate sacrifice of him and I would hope that as soon his death will be accompanied by others - his bereaved family by other bereaved families - that we ask what are we asking these young people to die for? For what reason, do we ask these young, bright, promised filled lives to be exchanged for? And are we doing everything possible to minimize such sacrifice, and to spend wisely the freedom bought at such dear cost to the greatest result? They gave up their lives, and the least we can do is see that it is not for nothing and that some good comes from this. If they risk their lives, can't the rest of us ask if we have done all that we could have possibly done to ease their burden?

I did not know Michael Mitchell, but he died for his country of his own choice, and today that bravery is enough for me to remember him and salute his passing.

III. THE ARTICLE
The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed Wednesday that Michael W. Mitchell, a 25-year-old Army tank mechanic and 1997 graduate of Monache High School, was killed over the weekend during fierce fighting in Sadr City, Iraq.

Mitchell was one of eight Americans who died trying to stem a Shiite uprising in the Baghdad suburb.

"Mike was murdered, shot in the back of the head," said his father, Bill Mitchell, during a tearful telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. "My understanding is that he was killed instantly."

A sergeant assigned to the 1st Armored Division, Mitchell had been stationed in Baghdad for 10 months.

Mitchell was scheduled to return to his home base in Friedberg, Germany next week, where he was engaged to a German woman.

"Mike called her on Sunday," said Bill Mitchell, who moved from Porterville to Atascadero seven years ago. "She said he sounded great and the last thing he told her was 'I'll see you in a week.'"

Mitchell was born in Orange County but grew up with his father in Porterville after his parents divorced. A good student and star athlete at Monache, for several years during his childhood Mitchell delivered newspapers for The Porterville Recorder.

"It's a very sad time for Porterville to have to lose one of our own and it brings the war awfully close to home," said John Snavely, superintendent of the Porterville Unified School District.

"Mike always seemed to have a smile on his face," said Rich Lambie, a wrestling coach at Monache who worked with Mitchell on the mats for four years. "He was just a great kid."

"Mike was a cool guy," said Ricardo Alvinas, whose older brother wrestled with Mitchell. "I always looked up to him."

Mitchell wrestled in the 135-pound weight division and Lambie said he was "a scrappy, tenacious competitor. Mike always, I mean always gave 100 percent on the mat, never gave up and led by example," Lambie remembered. "He was really admired and well-liked by his teammates."

Reports of Mitchell's death filtered through Monache on Wednesday.

"There was shock and sadness amongst the staff who knew Mike," said Monache Athletic Director Randy Quiram, who was a physical education teacher and track and cross country coach when Mitchell was a student there.

"Mike ran track and cross country for me for four years as well as wrestling here," Quiram said. "He wasn't large in size but he had a ton of heart and a tremendous amount of honesty and integrity. His personality was infectious and although he did very well in athletics, there was a humility about him that kept him grounded."

Proudly following in his father's footsteps - Bill Mitchell was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War - Mitchell enlisted in the Army immediately after graduation and at the time of his death, was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment's 1st Brigade.

The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported in its Wednesday edition that Bill Mitchell took part in a peace rally in opposition to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq - joining more than 500 other anti-war protesters in a March 20 demonstration in San Luis Obispo's Mitchell Park.

Mitchell is survived by his father, mother, Cathy Baker of Atascadero; step-father, Chris Baker of Atascadero; step-mother, Kimberly Mitchell of Visalia; sisters Christine Jayroe of Atascadero and Terri Pedrino of Yucaipa; step-brother Kurtis Baker of Atascadero; step-sister Kirsten Steele of Visalia; and grandparents Mary Louise and Mitch Mitchell of Torrance, and Verna Scovil of Yucaipa.

Funeral arrangements are pending while the family waits for his body to be shipped from Dover (Del.) Air Force Base. Meanwhile, arrangements are being made to set up a memorial fund in Mitchell's name.

Som Khamsaysoury, Elizabeth Brady and Sarah Villicana contributed to this report

Remembered: Family recalls precious times

By Cynthia Neff, San Luis Obispo Tribune

Mike Mitchell's family was ready to celebrate - only one week remained before the 25-year-old Army tank mechanic was slated to leave his Baghdad post for a base in Germany.

Their plans were cut short Sunday.

"When I heard the news that G.I.s were killed in Sadr City from the 1st Armored Division, I knew," Cathy Baker, Mitchell's mother, said at her Atascadero home on Wednesday where some of his relatives remembered a thoughtful young man who loved traveling, playing sports and eating Subway sandwiches. As a child, his family called him "Mikey."

"He was my little playmate," remembered Christine Jayroe, one of Mitchell's two older sisters. "I used to drag him and play in the dirt - I was a tomboy, so it worked out well.

"He was always running around with just his diapers on," Jayroe said, laughing. "Then as a teenager he would run around in boxers. We could never get him to put a shirt on."

Mitchell's parents divorced when he was about 18 months old, and his father remarried several years later to Kimberly Mitchell of Visalia.

"He was always so kind-hearted, always thinking of other people, even at a young age," Kimberly Mitchell said, remembering how during his sophomore year of high school, Mike Mitchell volunteered to help several elderly Porterville residents with difficult chores like yard work.

"I couldn't have asked for a better brother, had he been my own flesh and blood," said Mike Mitchell's step-sister Kirsten Steele, Kimberly Mitchell's daughter. "We fought like a real brother and sister and had little squabbles growing up, but he never tattletaled. He would do anything for you."

"Mike was always happy," said his step-father, Chris Baker. "I never saw him down."

The young soldier was engaged to a German woman he met when first stationed in Germany about five years ago. His fiancée, Bianca Liebl, is expected to arrive in Atascadero today.

The couple had been engaged for about four years and was to be married in Germany in August. They planned to move to California after Mike Mitchell's enlistment would have expired.

He reenlisted for the second time about three weeks ago, for another two to three years.

"She's not doing good," added Mitchell's father, Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, who has spoken daily to Liebl since learning of his son's death. "We're going to take care of her."

Bill Mitchell was notified Monday that his son died.

For about the last 10 months in Iraq, Mike Mitchell had been working as a tank mechanic, though "to my knowledge, he never picked up a wrench," said step-father Chris Baker. Instead, he had been working on perimeter duty, at checkpoints or on missions with his unit, such as the one he was on Sunday when attacked and killed.

This story was published in The Porterville Recorder on April 8, 2004

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