Just a few months after the two-year anniversary of joining the United States Air Force, John B. Mitchell, 22, nearly lost his life in combat.
The 2009 Nantahala High School graduate grew up in Macon County's Nantahala Community, and joined the Air Force in March 2011 after studying Criminal Justice at Western Carolina University. He was a member of the TACP (Tactical Air Control Party), a small group in the Air Force who travelled with the Army.
Mitchell had been deployed in Afghanistan since March 2013 and was due to return home in mid-September.
Generally the family would hear from Mitchell two or three times a week through Skype, but the phone call they received on June 26 was not from Mitchell.
“We heard of the accident by a phone call from his commander,” said Mitchell's sister Stacey Mitchell Atkins. “We were briefed that he had been hit by a rocket and was in critical condition, but was stable.”
The family was informed that Mitchell had already undergone emergency surgery and was in the process of being flown to Germany to await transport to the United States. “All of the family's reaction was the same, pray, pray pray,” said Atkins. “We all just wanted to be right beside him.”
“My brother is one of those guys that you can give a Qtip and a pocketknife to and he will build you a shopping mall,” said Atkins. “He has the drive I have always admired. When he said he was training for TACP, I knew he could do it. He might be banged up now, but his drive will get him through it.”
According to Atkins, Mitchell was working a night shift which had just ended when he and another soldier stepped outside and suddenly found themselves under attack.
Rockets had been shot over the base walls and landed about 10 feet from the two men. Mitchell was hit in the jaw, which caused it to break. He received several lacerations to his legs and arms, but was able to get himself to shelter.
“My parents were able to speak to John B's nurse and doctor in Germany who were both very helpful and even followed instructions to give John B a hug and tell him everything was going to be okay,” said Atkins. “Eventually he called on Skype to where we could see him! Wow, what a relief! It felt so good to see his face.”
Mitchell, who is based in Fort Campbell, Ky., will continue to recover in Texas before being allowed to come home.
“Doctors are saying he's looking at a 14-month recovery and will do so nicely,” said Atkins. “He is currently in San Antonio, Texas where he will be treated by specialists and cared for by the wounded soldiers hospital.”
As he recovers, Mitchell has kept up with concerned friends and family on social media. Just days after the accident, on June 29, Mitchell took to facebook to thank everyone for their support.
“Thanks for all the love, guys, you have no idea how much this has helped me, all is good for now just going to be a while till I am 100 percent. They are telling me about 14 months to fully get there,” he wrote. “Can't wait to see all my friends and family. I can't explain how good it was to get on here and see the love. It really got to me. I'll try to keep y'all updated on everything. It's just hard for me to stay awake, but I love you guys and I'm going to make it through this. Whatever it takes. See y'all soon.”
Mitchell's family members, several friends and fellow soldiers are all scheduled to visit as he recovers and his parents, John and Diane Mitchell, are currently in Texas with him. “Our son has always made us proud in all his accomplishments, and to see him grow into a soldier is really an honor,” they said. “We are blessed to see our son again and want to thank all the soldiers who have stood to protect this country.”
In addition to Stacey, Mitchell's other sister Sally is also proud of her brother.
“John B is an amazing human being,” Sally said. “It takes someone that will go out and fight for this country and have everything go down hill in just a few minutes to make you realize how much danger our troops are really in. He gives his all and I know once he recovers he will once again give his all.”
United States Congressman Mark Meadows thanked Mitchell for his selfless service. “Our servicemen and women make sacrifices every day, but too often they are not properly recognized or appreciated," said Congressman Meadows. "I want to personally thank John Mitchell for his heroism, as his actions remind us that being a hero starts with a willingness to serve others. His injuries, which nearly cost him his life, should be an ever-present reminder to us of our military members’ selfless bravery in protecting our freedoms. My thoughts, prayers, and grateful heart are with John and his family.”
“From all the calls, texts, benefits, donations and social media support, we feel John B has no shortage of prayer warriors or support team, which makes all the difference,” said Atkins. “Nothing can express the gratitude we have in our hearts of all the support we have received from our hometown family. Thank you all and Thank God.”