Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, California, never expected his boy to make Nightline, let alone Doonesbury. He was happy enough that his son Mike had made a man of himself in the US Army, while not losing his compassion and fun-loving nature.
But now, there was the face of Michael W. Mitchell, staff sergeant in the US Army, in the Washington Post, on Nightline and on the front page of USA Today, his name plastered all over other newspapers and even etched in a panel of Garry Trudeau's comic strip. It was all part of Memorial Day remembrances in 2004, back when the names and faces of the fallen were still limited enough to read or show all of them, in print or on the air.
Mike Mitchell had been shot by a sniper on April 4, 2004, dead at the age of 25, after volunteering to take control of a tank's machine gun during an ambush in Sadr City.
What did his father, a wiry 53-year-old Army veteran, think of the Doonesbury mention and similar honors, which some pro-warriors in the media denounced as "antiwar" gestures? "I like seeing the names out there," Bill Mitchell (no relation) told me, six days before Trudeau's tribute appeared, with every deceased soldier's name in tiny lettering. "Otherwise, they are just unknown soldiers."
Surprisingly, he took it further: "I would welcome printing the name of anyone who has died due to this war. Is an American death worth more than the death of an Iraqi, an Australian, or a Spaniard? I would bet you the grieving parents of those who were killed could straighten out some people in America who only think our loved ones are important! These deaths are the real cost of war, and every single one should be given the honorable mention it deserves."
Bill didn't require the death of his son to oppose this war, however. He had carried a sign during a March 20, 2004, peace protest near his home that read, "Bring my son home now." Less than three weeks later, Mike would come home, in a coffin, with a flag draped over it. Roughly 4000 Americans have since followed.
I met Bill Mitchell (pictured at left) in an odd but appropriate way. When I wrote a column comparing the Iraq war with Vietnam on April 8, 2004—then a bit of a stretch, now far from far-fetched—I ended it with a tribute to the Americans lately killed in action, using a list the New York Times carried every day. Among the names: Michael W. Mitchell.
Someone apparently forwarded this column to Bill, who was in Germany, looking after Mike's fiancee, Bianca. Bill wrote me a note thanking me for attaching a name to the number that was his son.
We began corresponding. When Tami Silicio's now-famous photo of caskets waiting to be flown home from Kuwait appeared in the Seattle Times, breaking the Pentagon ban on such shots, Bill told me he was positive the body of his son was in one of them: The dates lined up.
Later, he sent me a letter he'd just mailed to the Seattle Times, backing what Silicio and the newspaper had done. "Hiding the death and destruction of this war does not make it easier on anyone except those who want to keep the truth away from the people," BIll wrote. "I know that the current government policy has the bodies being flown in under the cloak of darkness." I wrote a column about that, and when that got a strong response, I directed a few media inquiries to Bill.
Then Bill sent me a copy of a letter he had mailed to Mike's commanding officer, full of pride, gratitude, and anger. One line jumped out at me, as Bill described the "irony" that his son "was killed by the very people that he was liberating. This is insanity!" He added: "I am having a major problem with being OK with his death under these circumstances and I really do not believe that Iraq, the world, or the lives of his family and friends are better due to his death." One can only imagine the pain between those lines.
But Bill also took a longer view: "Someone needs to take a step back and analyze what has happened in Iraq over the last 14 months. We are now at war with those very people that we set out to liberate." Six years later, that war goes on.
Another postscript:: When Mike Mitchell's name made the Times in the daily casualty list it appeared alongside the name of another soldier who later became far more famous: Cindy Sheehan's son, Casey. This amazing link led Bill to take part in one of Cindy's encampments, as well as a lobbying trip to Capitol Hill. His photo from these protests turned up in the Times (planting a cross) and at the Life magazine site (in the halls of Congress). The last time I spoke with Bill he said, "Some say that my boy will have died in vain if we pull out of Iraq. But what I believe is—just the opposite."