Mitchell: Veterans, not sports icons, are true heroes
Days like today make me remember my dad.
My dad, Merle Mitchell, was a retired chief master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force following a military career that spanned close to 30 years. It was days like today when he’d be up around sunrise — rain or shine — to hang our American flag at the door for Veterans Day.
He was definitely a man of routine until the day he died on Aug. 4, 1995. Me, being the sarcastic teenager I was, tended to make fun of that.
Then again, who doesn’t make fun of their parents when they’re teenagers?
I can still remember that routine, and it’s forever embedded into my skull because it hardly ever changed unless it had to. Among those things: He’d boil water for oatmeal every morning. He never wore shoes other than the dress flats that came with his uniform a good long time before I was born. Dinner was 5 p.m. — sharp! — every day. Not 4:59. Not 5:01. If I was playing at a friend’s house down the street right before dinner, we could count on the phone ringing at 4:58, with the voice on the other end telling me it was time to come home.
I never once saw him wear shorts. Ever. He told me once that his extremely white legs were the focus of camp ridicule by natives during his tour in the Korean War, and he vowed never to wear shorts in public again. He at least held true to that during my time with him, seemingly wearing the same blue slacks with a light-blue shirt at least five days a week for, well, years.
I’ve now determined that he either kept a stockpile of clothes in his closet, or he took really, REALLY good care of them.
Just like he and Mom took really good care of me. This is where the sports aspect of this column comes in.
Dad and Mom made it a point to be at every sporting event I played in, from coach-pitch baseball as a third-grader until my senior year of high school, when I played football and ran track. I won plenty of ribbons and trophies up until my time in high school, when my athletic achievements didn’t come in mass quantities like they once did.
But when I did get a ribbon or a trophy, they would go downstairs in our rec room. There, in a corner of that room, were all of my dad’s medals — from his military service.
They were all encased inside of a shadow box, which dad made himself from his workbench that was just adjacent to that rec room in the basement of our house. Among them were medals for years of service, a term which included service in World War II, time in Korea and two tours in the Vietnam War.
In Korea, he was part of a regiment called “the Mosquitoes,” which was an intelligence operation that flew unarmed aircraft behind enemy lines and brought reports and photos back. In one of his tours in Vietnam, he was stationed in the Philippine Islands, where he earned the Bronze Star for his efforts in helping move troops in and out of Vietnam. By the time he retired in the early 1970s, his official title was Administrative Superintendent of Personnel for the North American Air Defense Command.
So by the time I was around, he was putting these trophies I was winning right next to the medals he was awarded. Obviously, being 9, 10 or 11 years old, the mindset focused on being proud of the stuff you’ve done and what you’ve won. It wasn’t until much, much later in life I figured out what I’d done to win those trophies — hitting home runs or winning a race — paled in comparison to what Dad had to do to earn his medals, which included risking his life and being on the other side of the world from his wife and children.
That’s why to this day, I cringe when someone is called a hero for scoring a game-winning touchdown, hitting a walk-off home run or nailing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
There are no heroes in sports.
Heroes are people who have been to places like Afghanistan or Iraq, who have gone to sleep at night only to be awakened by rockets flying over their campsites. Heroes are the guys and girls who have lost limbs, sanity or, in some cases, their lives, because of their time on the front lines of battle.
Those people do these things so that the rest of us can witness the game-winning touchdowns, the walk-off homers and the buzzer-beating 3-pointers. And that’s something that goes back to the days of George Washington — long before sports were much of a priority to anyone.
That’s also why as I’ve gotten older, I appreciate the things my dad did even more. If it wasn’t for him, and others like him, the memories I now have and cherish would be much different.
Take the time to thank a veteran today. Our way of life survives in large part because of them.
If my dad was around today, that’s what I’d tell him.
Jon Mitchell is the sports editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and Rifle Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at 970-384-9123, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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