Cindy Sheehan, Bill Mitchell and the Lost Boys

By: Greg Mitchell

With the U.S. death toll in Iraq approaching 2,000, and a like number of grieving families, what were the odds that the one father I know personally in that mournful position would end up at Cindy Sheehan?s side in Crawford, Texas, this week?

Since he?s been protesting the war before it began — and before he lost his son — I probably shouldn?t have been so surprised.

Yesterday, visiting the Web site of the Lone Star Iconoclast (better known as ?George Bush?s hometown paper?) in Crawford, I came across a firsthand account of a visit by the publisher and editor of that paper, W. Leon Smith, to the Sheehan encampment. She is the woman now famous for demanding to meet with the president to find out from him why her son had to die in Iraq last year, and for what.

Smith, on his suddenly-popular Web site, recounted in Q&A form his interview that day with a man who had also lost a son in Iraq, and had flown in from California to stand with Sheehan.

Lo and behold, the interview subject was none other than Bill Mitchell (no relation), who I interviewed on several occasions last year, and have kept in contact with ever since via e-mail. There was even a picture of the two men chatting, so I finally got to see what Bill looks like: thin, fair, with a moustache.

I?d read a fair amount about Sheehan, and knew Bill?s story very well, but still I was shocked when I read in the interview that Mitchell?s son Mike had died on the same day, April 4, 2004, as Sheehan?s son Casey — and in the same Sadr City incident.

Then Bill said something about the two boys probably not ever meeting, until their coffins likely left Iraq on the same plane.

Elsewhere in the interview, Mitchell, who lives in Atascadero, Calif., explained that his life was still in turmoil because of his son?s death. But he felt he should continue to speak out because the parents of the dead ?have a certain credibility. We?re not someone up there that?s just espousing some belief. We?re victims of the war like many other people are.?

To show how tragically little has changed over the past year or so, with little progress in Iraq and the bodies still coming home (this month at a faster clip), here again is a column I wrote about Bill and Mike Mitchell last year in late-May.

***

May 2004:

Bill Mitchell never expected his boy to make “Doonesbury,” let alone “Nightline.” He was happy enough that his son Mike had made a man of himself in the U.S. Army, while not losing his compassion and fun-loving nature. But now, this spring, here is the face of Michael W. Mitchell, staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, in The Washington Post, on “Nightline” and on the front page of USA Today, his name plastered all over other newspapers and, this past Sunday, etched in a panel of Garry Trudeau’s comic strip.

What this means, of course, is that Mike Mitchell is a victim of the war in Iraq, shot by a sniper on April 4, dead at the age of 25, after volunteering to take control of a tank’s machine gun during an ambush in Sadr City.

What does his father, a 53-year-old Army veteran who lives in Atascadero, Calif., think of the “Doonesbury” mention and similar honors, which some pro-warriors in the press have denounced? “I like seeing the names out there,” he told me last week, six days before Trudeau’s tribute. “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? 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 carried a sign during a March 20 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.

I met Bill Mitchell (no relation) in an odd but appropriate way. When I wrote a column comparing the Iraq war with Vietnam on April 8 — 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 carries every day (this was before naming the dead became fashionable). 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. 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.

I wrote an online column about that, too, describing it as a motivation for my urging at least one major U.S. newspaper to break ranks and call for a phased withdrawal from Iraq — instead of sending more troops, the favored position. That got a lot of response as well, including the honor of being denounced by Rush Limbaugh.

Bill’s now back in California. His son’s empty military casket is still in his garage. When Bill was out of the country, he had to refuse offers to appear on major TV shows, and he now finds that interest in Mike’s story has passed. “It’s as if I missed the window of opportunity,” he said. Now the media focuses on more sensational war news while “ignoring those who are still dying every day.”

But Bill also takes 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. I just keep asking people how they would be acting if Iraqi tanks were running up and down the streets of America.”

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