Going strong after 50 years of service
July 20, 2011
HUNTER ARMY AIRFIELD, Ga. - Sixty-nine-year-old Harry Mitchell slips quietly into the headquarters building at Hunter Army Airfield carrying an unlit cigar. He sits in a corner office and reminisces during this interview about his 50 years of federal service and the twists and turns it’s taken.
“I quit smoking 20 years ago,” says the Hunter Airfield Quality Assurance Officer, gesturing to his hand. “I carry this just to have one around.”
Besides his non-smoking conversion, the retired Army pilot has made other improvements in his life since 1959, when he was a 17-year-old high school dropout, driving a produce truck in West Virginia, earning $1.10 an hour.
“Joining the military was the best thing I’ve done,” he said. “After three tours in Europe" also tours in Vietnam, and R & R in Tokyo and Malaysia" I’ve seen the world and met some incredible people.”
He initially joined the West Virginia National Guard, but he was put on active duty in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built. The following year, he was assigned to Fort Hood where he served as a ground scout during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in 1967, did a tour in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment.
Eventually, Mitchell finished his education in the Army and went to flight school in 1969-70. After school, he piloted Cobras and OH6 helicopters as a warrant officer during his second Vietnam tour with the 7th Squadron, 17th Air Calvary, attached to the 173rd Airborne Division.
He received two Purple Hearts on his first Vietnam tour, along with the Bronze Star with Valor.
“I never planned to be a pilot,” he said. “I went in that direction after Drill Sergeant School with the 1st Training Brigade at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.
“The drill sergeant job was not for me. I hated everything about it,” Mitchell, adding that he looked for other opportunities to change his Military Occupation Specialty. When the aviation flight school prospect became available, he jumped at the opportunity to attend. But piloting an aircraft had its challenges, and like many other new pilots, he had to learn to control his fear of flying, as well as the aircraft.
“I couldn’t keep it in Texas,” he laughs. “I finally relaxed and learned to use my fingertips to control it instead of man-handling it like a tank.”
He said he finally felt “at home” flying the UH1 Huey. After flight school, he went to Vietnam, to Germany then he was assigned to Fort Campbell, where he flew Cobra helicopters with the 101st Airborne Division as it was changing to an air mobility mission.
Jack Dibrell, Airfield Chief, Hunter Army Airfield, remembers Mitchell’s years in the early 80s at Hunter and the pride he took as an attack helicopter pilot, serving with the Viper’s which is now the 1st Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment.
I first met Harry when I arrived at Hunter after flight school,” said Dibrell. “At the time, only a couple of installations had the latest version of the AH-1S modernized Cobras. Harry was always proud to show off his inscribed VIPER Beer Mug with the number 13 assigned to him. This low number is indicative of his early role as a founding member of the VIPER fraternity of attack helicopter pilots.”
Mitchell retired from the active military in 1981 at the rank of chief warrant officer, but he remained at Hunter Army Airfield working in several Civilian positions. Initially, he worked at the flight simulator training young aviators and later managed airfield operations conducting the first power projection operations as part of the newly formed Rapid Deployment Force.
“He’s got valuable institutional knowledge,” said Dibrell. “His enormous experience base and his can do attitude and problem solving abilities have had an enormous positive impact on our Army's readiness. We always joke here at the airfield that Harry will be here handing us our retirement papers.
But Harry said he’s not quite ready to retire yet.
“I may stay for my 55 year and my 60 year service pins,” he says to a crowd gathered for an airfield award ceremony, where he received a letter of congratulations from Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command and Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management.
Before the ceremony, his wife of 27 years, Susan, commented about the longevity of her husband’s career with the military.
“He’s not ready to go just yet,” she said. “He loves what he does. He wakes up every day, ready to go out and conquer.”
Mitchell knows that he’ll eventually retire, probably in the near future, but for now, he will continue to work with his airfield ‘family’ tracking employee training, scheduling work, and supporting the airfield staff whatever way he can.
“Harry's seen and done more than many would in a military and Civilian career,” said Dibrell. “Whenever that time does come for him to retire, he’ll be sorely missed.”