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Staff Sgt. Michael Mitchell
Staff Sgt. Michael Mitchell ()

To mark the first anniversary of the Iraq war, Bill Mitchell carried a sign during the March 20 protest that read “Bring My Son Home Now.”

A few weeks later, Staff Sgt. Michael Mitchell returned home, unfortunately, in a flag-draped coffin.

A tank mechanic with the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, Michael Mitchell volunteered to man a tank’s machine gun April 4, when Shiite radicals ambushed 1st Cavalry Division troops in Sadr City, a slum east of Baghdad.

He told his family that his unit, known as the Iron Dukes, planned to leave Iraq on April 11. He died just a week before.

Then, his comrades had their tour in Iraq extended by four months. Instead of coming back to Germany to plan his August wedding, Mitchell, who was posthumously promoted, made a final journey back to California, where he was cremated.

No back-slapping welcomes or long embraces will happen now. Instead there a sobs of relief replaced by tears of sorrow.

Over the past few weeks, Bill Mitchell, 53, has been in Germany, caring for his son’s fiancée, Bianca.

“I’m doing what my son would want his dad to do,” Bill Mitchell said.

His son’s death also compelled the father, an Army veteran, to speak out about the war.

He recently stood up for a civilian defense contractor who lost her job after The Seattle Times published her photographs of U.S. military coffins leaving Kuwait. He believes his son’s casket was among those that made the press.

“It was 20 dead soldiers,” Bill Mitchell said. “It was showing the care and respect they give the coffins.”

Since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon banned journalists from taking photographs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the first stateside stop for fallen soldiers returning home.

In April, the Air Force released more than 350 photographs, in response to a Freedom of Information request. The photos show airmen arranging flags on caskets inside a C-17 Globemaster and honoring them as they depart the aircraft.

Both the Pentagon and the White House said the ban on photos of soldiers’ coffins is in place to protect the privacy of soldiers’ families.

But Mitchell said he believes the motive is political.

“They don’t want people to see the true cost of war,” Mitchell said. “The $87 billion they are spending is not the true cost. It would not pay to bring my son back alive.”

A letter recently arrived from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, containing standard condolences, Mitchell said. But the letter from the Pentagon lacked feelings, he said.

“It’s just a form letter. It’s in [a] computer, and you add someone else’s name,” Mitchell said. “I don’t believe [Rumsfeld] signed it.”

Rumsfeld’s brief letter began, “All of us are deeply saddened …,” the father said, his voice filling with anger. “I don’t believe all the Pentagon employees knew my son, so how could they be deeply saddened by his death?”

On May 4, one month after his son’s death, Mitchell mailed a harsh reply to Rumsfeld. He sent a copy to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with a flier for his son’s memorial fund.

Mitchell inherited his son’s life insurance, his stocks and about $12,000 the Army sent for funeral expenses. He’s used some of the money to help Bianca, to include redecorating her home — filled with memories of Michael — with “a new look and feel.”

While caring for Bianca is Mitchell’s priority, he also hopes to erect a memorial for Michael at a California park and send care packages to his son’s fellow soldiers.

He headed back to America this week, hoping to explain things to family and friends.

And he’s still grieving.

“My life has been turned upside-down,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had a couple of cries in, but I haven’t let it out.”

As part of the grieving process, Mitchell is trying to understand just how his son died. He’s been told conflicting information. His son was manning a machine gun and had killed three Iraqis before receiving a fatal shot to the head, Mitchell said.

Tankers from 2/37 Armor were by his son’s side when he died.

He hopes to meet those soldiers later this summer, when they return from Iraq, Mitchell told his son’s company commander in a recent letter.

“I will be there to hear the stories from those who served with Mike, as unfortunately, my son will never be able to tell me himself.”

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