On Losing a Son, and Saving Others

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By: Greg Mitchell

Since I?ve been writing about Bill Mitchell (no relation) for over a year, I thought I would check in with him again today now that his mug has appeared in major newspapers this week in relation to the ongoing antiwar protest near President Bush’s ranch in Texas.

Bill, as I wrote in this space last week, had driven from his home in Atascadero, Calif., earlier this month to be among the first to join Cindy Sheehan in her once-lonely protest. They shared more than a determination to stop the war, having each lost a son in Iraq — in fact, on the same day, on the same mission, in Sadr City.

I caught up with Bill via cell phone this afternoon, as he completed a drive back to the central coast of California, and just before Sheehan announced she was also heading home after her mother suffered a stroke. But the Crawford camp will apparently be ?as you were? in her absence.

Bill told me he was ?running only on adrenaline? after a week of getting only two to four hours of sleep a night, if that. And no wonder, with Bush neighbors shooting off guns across the road or mowing down hundreds of crosses erected in honor of dead soldiers (like Bill?s son, Mike) in the middle of the night.

?I did about 20 interviews a day,? he told me. ?So did the other Gold Star parents. It was a real media frenzy, and a far cry from months ago when only the ?alternative? type papers were interested. There was even a live thing going with a Waco TV station when that guy ran over the crosses. We?ve got a well-equipped media center. It was the most incredible week of my life, I?ll tell you.?

Photos of Bill, often next to or holding one of those crosses, appeared in The New York Times and many other papers. He told me he’ll be heading back to Texas after a few days at home, and organizing (he hopes) many others to accompany him in buses or vans. Then he plans to travel to Washington, D.C. when, as expected, ?Camp Casey? — from the name of Sheehan?s deceased son — relocates to Lafayette Park after Labor Day.

?We?ve got momentum, dude,? he said (remember, he is from California). A few days ago, he explained, there were 10 families at the Sheehan site who had lost relatives in Iraq, and another 15 with loved ones there now. The media has it partly wrong, he asserted. ?It?s not about Cindy,? he said. ?It?s so much more.?

I?ve had an odd, but intimate, connection with Bill since the day after his son was killed last April 4. I happened to write a column shortly after that and, for once, listed all the Americans killed in Iraq on that day. A few days later I heard from Bill for the first time, thanking me for mentioning his son, Mike. Then I wrote a couple of columns about Bill and his boy.

Just last week, I learned, in a letter from his daughter Christine, that over a year ago she had taken my list of names in that first column and tried to contact the families of all the others who died. Some, according to Bill, did not respond at all, or voiced unwavering support for the war, which helped give their son?s deaths greater meaning, they thought. Only Cindy Sheehan, a fellow Californian over in Vacaville, responded openly and with an open mind.

Referring to Sheehan, Christine wrote me last week: ?We have been in constant contact with her from almost the beginning?.She is like a second mom to me, and since she has yet to have grandbabies of her own, she wants to know if she can claim my two boys as her grandchildren. They have only met her once, but took to her immediately, just like she was family. And I guess it is true to say now, that she actually is. I always say that she and the other Gold Star Families for Peace members are the greatest people I wish I never knew.”

Bill Mitchell, 53, an Army vet who had opposed the war from the beginning, spoke at peace rallies after his son?s death, and traveled with Sheehan, even to Washington a couple months ago. ?We paid our own way, using what we call our ?blood money? from our sons’ deaths,? he said. Much of the rest of the blood money is going toward paying for his son?s fianc? Bianca, who lives in Germany, to get her master?s degree in sociology. Or as Bill put it, ?Mike is going to make sure she gets her degree.?

So it was natural that Bill would follow Sheehan to Texas, although he said it never occurred to him until he woke up a week ago Sunday and just decided he had to do it, and took the red eye to Texas that night. As he tells it, many others who arrived at the camp shared this impulsiveness. Two of his female friends from San Diego drove 22 hours just to meet Sheehan, and turned around and drove home the next day. ?I gave them $20 for gas,? Bill said, ?and told them, ?Mike appreciates it.??

Then there was a mother and son from Dayton, Ohio, who jumped in the car and drove down, went home, and came back a few days later. Bishops and priests. A congresswoman and a Hollywood actor: ?It?s like that movie ?Field of Dreams,? you know, ?if you build it they will come.??

From nearby arrived a ?couple of Texas farm boys — dude, you?d swear they were from the other side on the war.? Plenty of vets, including some from World War II. A few active duty from Ft. Hood.

When he got to the camp, the main support center there, the local Peace House, had only $3 in its bank account. But now, Bill said, donations have brought it up close to six figures. Supplies are constantly rolling in — ice, food for dinner (for 100), computers. Still, with the heat and red ants ?and three or four monsoons,? he ?nearly collapsed a couple times.? But he adds, ?We’re just doing whatever we can to end this war it so that no one else has to experience that same pain and devastation, the same upset in their lives.?

One day, Bill says he got a call from a woman in the U.S. Army in Germany, about to fly off to Iraq, who had seen his picture in the paper and wanted to tell him that she and many others in the military were with him. ?When my son was killed I said he had died in vain,? Bill said. ?Now I feel the tide is turning, the mood changing. Now I feel that with incredible people, and incredible numbers of people, pulling together, the story of my son?s life and death will actually save many other lives.”

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Read last week’s column on Bill Mitchell.

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