CAMP PENDLETON — His family in the Midwest never doubted that R.J. Mitchell II would do whatever was necessary to protect his fellow Marines in Iraq.
"We were concerned about him, of course, but we always knew he'd take care of himself and the men under him," said Bill Raiser of Lamoni, Iowa, Mitchell's maternal grandfather.
Just how well Mitchell took care of his men as a squad leader with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment will be recognized here Friday as he receives the Navy Cross for heroism during the vicious house-to-house fighting in Fallouja in 2004.
The details of that Nov. 13 day have surprised even his family.
"He's always been so strong inside, I knew he'd do the job that was needed in Iraq," said Mitchell's mother, Martha Raiser, of Leon, Iowa. "But when you read the citation, it almost seems impossible that he could have done all that."
It was at the height of the assault by Marines on the insurgent stronghold in the Sunni Triangle. Insurgents had learned not to fight Marines in the open, preferring to barricade themselves inside a home, keeping their weapons aimed at the door and waiting for the Marines to break through.
When five Marines became pinned down inside a house, Mitchell charged through AK47 fire and hand grenade explosions to reach the house. He laid down a burst of gunfire to allow a corpsman to treat casualties.
Hit in the left leg by a ricocheting bullet and grenade shrapnel that also disabled his M-16, Mitchell spotted a wounded insurgent reaching for a weapon. He killed the insurgent with his knife and then, limping from his wounds, helped with the evacuation of wounded Marines.
His actions, according to the citation, saved the lives of several Marines. Sgt. Maj. Brad Kasal, who was in the same fight and also received the Navy Cross, said Mitchell was "a leader by example."
"He was very close to his Marines," Kasal said, "he wasn't boisterous or overbearing, but when he needed to speak up or be forceful he was there."
After the battle, Mitchell, 26, was given a Purple Heart, his fourth in two tours in Iraq.
He left the Marine Corps in early 2005 as a sergeant. He is studying motorcycle mechanics in Phoenix. He and wife, Sara, have a baby boy, R.J. III, born in January.
Mitchell downplays what he and other Marines accomplished in what came to be known among combat troops as Hell House. "It was a job, and we did it," he said.
Of the tens of thousands of Marines who have served in Iraq, barely a dozen have been awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for recognition of combat bravery by Marines and sailors.
Mitchell's mother and his father, Robert Mitchell of Omaha, Neb., will be at Camp Pendleton for the ceremony on Friday, when Mitchell is set to receive the Navy Cross from Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"When you put yourself voluntarily in a bad situation, that's pure heroism," Kasal said.