One family's ribbons now more poignant

Soldier: A little girl's plans to remove the decorations with her soldier-father are dashed by tragic news from Iraq.

War In Iraq

April 11, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

ANTIOCH, W.Va. - Just before the war began, 3-year-old Bailey Mitchell asked her mom the meaning of the yellow ribbons that had begun to appear around this mountainous region straddling the Maryland-West Virginia border.

Brenda Mitchell explained that they were part of American wartime lore - a symbol of the nation's commitment to seeing its soldiers return home.

"After that," Brenda says, "Bailey was on a mission."

Spc. George A. Mitchell Jr. had shipped out for Kuwait in September, and Bailey was determined to plaster the dozen oak trees around their white-frame home with ribbons and bows for her dad.

In one of her last telephone conversations with her father, "she told him she tied those yellow ribbons up for him, and when he came home they were going to take them down together," Brenda said.

Mitchell, 35, was killed Monday in Iraq after a mortar shell fired by enemy troops struck his post south of Baghdad.

This is the way the war came home to Antioch and nearby communities dotting the Potomac River.

The ribbons were still clinging to the bare oak trees when two soldiers arrived at the door to say that Bailey's father wouldn't be returning to help take them down.

As soon as she saw the uniformed men climbing out of their car, Brenda knew "it was trouble."

Her mother, Levonna Purinton, 66, had the same sickened reaction when the men showed up at her home in Rawlings, Md., about a dozen miles away, looking for Brenda's address.

Purinton and her husband, Edward, still live in the 150-year-old log cabin where Brenda was raised.

To Purinton, whose father fought at Okinawa, the news inflamed her opposition to the Iraq war.

Even before her son-in-law's death, she said, she believed that the United States should not have invaded Iraq without United Nations backing.

"I think Mr. Bush has just put another notch in his holster," she said. "For the soldiers, I say, `God bless `em.' But how many soldiers have died?"

Purinton isn't the only area resident who is torn between supporting the troops and questioning whether their mission was necessary.

"We have in our congregation various views," said John Footen, minister of the Dawson United Methodist Church, which Brenda attended as a child.

"But we've all been praying for the troops. Can you imagine being a parent of someone who would die now, especially when there are photos of bringing down statues of Saddam [Hussein]?" Footen said.

He said he is planning a special prayer for the Mitchells at an upcoming service.

George Mitchell had no mixed feelings about the Iraq mission, said his wife.

Raised in Lebanon, Pa., he had spent 16 years between full-time active duty and the Army National Guard.

He was on a special security force at Baltimore-Washington International Airport after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"George had a strong love for his country and what he was doing," Brenda said as she sat on the sofa of her home playing with the couple's other child, 23-month- old Joshua. "He didn't have any qualms about going to Baghdad and helping to liberate those people."

As she spoke, she clutched a damp paper towel in her right hand to dab at her face when she cried.

"I can be OK to a point, but then I get upset when I think about things we did together - and things that [Joshua] is going to miss," she said.

The family calls Bailey "Daddy's girl." She often wears a child-size camouflage jacket modeled after her dad's.

George Mitchell left for Kuwait for a six-month stint in September but was held over because of the war.

He never saw the ranch home where his family now lives. They were living near Brenda's mother's in Rawlings when he shipped out.

She moved the family in January to the rented home here because of financial problems and because George always said he enjoyed this wooded region of West Virginia. He liked to hunt.

On the day he died, he called her and said he would like to come home and work for the sheriff's office in Mineral County, W.Va., Brenda said.

The couple met in 1997 when Brenda, 43, who holds a business degree, was working as a manager with Wal-Mart's automotive division in Lebanon.

George, who had been married twice, was an occasional customer.

"He brought in his truck to have it serviced," she said. "It was one of those goofy love-at-first-sight things."

Married three years ago, the couple liked the intimacy of the small towns in the area, whose main employers include a prison and a Westvaco Corp. paper mill.

Rawlings is small enough that its postmaster, Linda Mills, not only immediately recognized the Mitchells by name yesterday but also could rattle off a list of their friends.

Now, Brenda and her kids are taking solace in the towns' support and sympathy.

Her telephone rang about every five minutes, and the door opened frequently with visitors bringing food and soda.

Her mom has been helping watch the kids.

"I know that if I need anything, it will be taken care of," she said.

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