The ashes were a running joke of sorts, a constant reminder of a man who served his nation with valor then went on to counsel a young eventual Marine about the ways of war.
Contained in a 10-inch-high, purplish urn that was kept for many years on the mantle of a St. Petersburg, Florida, home, the cremains were those of Albert L. Mitchell, a decorated Green Beret who served three tours during the Vietnam War and retired in 1978 as a major after 20 years in uniform.
Mitchell, who lived with his brother Gary for many years, died on Feb. 6, 2010. He was 71.
Gary Mitchell kept the ashes around in case the war hero’s ex-wife or daughter wanted to pick them up, said Barry Fitzgerald, a longtime neighbor.
“Every once in a while, Gary would say, ‘I have my brother here, I think I’ll dust him off,” said Fitzgerald with a hearty laugh.
Fitzgerald had fond memories of Mitchell, especially because the old veteran spent a lot of time counseling Fitzgerald’s son, who eventually fulfilled his dream of joining the Marines.
Eventually, Gary Mitchell died, too, and left the home to a friend who rented it out.
Fitzgerald pretty much forgot about the remains.
And that’s when this story gets a little weird.
The new owner rented out the home, said Fitzgerald, who stopped paying much attention to the comings and goings of its occupants as a result.
Then one day, a renter knocked on his door.
“At one point, during a clean-up effort, they found two boxes,” said Fitzgerald. “One with Albert’s remains and some documents and citations and that sort of thing, and another with other documents.”
The renter, knowing that Fitzgerald had friends at MacDill Air Force Base, saw the military information and asked Fitzgerald, a former Navy submariner, if he could make a call.
So he did. To a friend at U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill.
That friend contacted U.S. Special Operation Command’s Warrior Care Program, and the investigation was on.
Questions. Many questions
It was one thing to have the cremains and the documents. It was another thing entirely to positively identify them and find long-lost next of kin.
Enter Lawrence Rivera.
A special case advocate for the Warrior Care Program, Rivera jumped in with both feet.
Confirming the eligibility was the easy part, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, who was speaking on behalf of SOCOM.
“We didn’t just have the urn, we had potentially identifying items like dog tags and papers,” said Hawkins. The hard part was making sure the cremains were properly identified.
Rivera began a deeper dive, obtaining Mitchell’s discharge papers, known as DD214. He then had to hunt down Mitchell’s death certificate, which was not in the batch of stuff turned over by Fitzgerald.
“That was where most of the effort went,” said Hawkins. “We didn’t know where Mitchell died. Or when.”
Minus the death certificate, Rivera had no next of kin. So he started reaching out to various veteran service organizations, but none could recall a retired Green Beret major named Albert Mitchell among their ranks.
Eventually, Rivera received the death certificate, which contained the name of Mitchell’s daughter.
It was an “ah-ha” moment, but one that was short-lived.
They only had her maiden name. But with some more sleuthing, Rivera finally tracked down Frances Charleene Mitchell Cox, who provided the last pieces of the puzzle.
She and her husband, Robert David Cox, traveled Thursday from their home near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the Tampa area, where they will attend an interment ceremony 11 a.m. Friday at the Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Neither Cox nor her husband returned several calls seeking comment. But Fitzgerald, Mitchell’s former neighbor, has nothing but fond memories of a Green Beret who served with the 3rd and 5th Special Forces Groups and earned a Bronze Star with V Device for Valor among many other medals and commendations.
“He never really spoke much about the war, at least not with me,” said Fitzgerald. “We knew he was Special Forces. But he mainly talked about his motorcycle. He had a big Harley.”
Mitchell spent his retirement days working to help recovering alcoholics, said Fitzgerald, adding that the crusty old veteran really made a connection with his son, Zachary Fitzgerald.
“He had a great deal of intense conversations with Al,” said Fitzgerald. “As soon as he found out my son wanted to join the Marines, he took him under his wing and tried to provide some wisdom.”
Fitzgerald said that he, his wife and son, now a Marine Reserve staff sergeant, will all attend the Bay Pines ceremony.
“Al was a really good mentor,” Fitzgerald recalled. “He really looked after the kid. He was a really good guy.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.