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Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean K. Mitchell, 35, Monterey; killed as high winds blow over tent

August 12, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

On July 7, high winds from a sandstorm blew over an Army tent in the West African country of Mali, killing a soldier from California and injuring four others involved in counter-terrorism efforts for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Sgt. 1st Class Sean K. Mitchell, 35, of Monterey died of injuries suffered in the incident in Kidal, a remote town in northeastern Mali populated by ethnic Tuareg Berbers.

The Alaska brand tent involved in Mitchell's death is commonly used for equipment storage and personnel housing, said Jaime Wood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. European Command. It is designed to withstand severe arctic conditions.

Mitchell, who had hoped to attend officers' school, joined the Army in 1997, said his mother, Joan. His father, Steven, had served in the Army during the Vietnam War. They live in Monterey.

"He felt that joining was the right thing to do, to serve his country," his mother said, adding that her son enjoyed serving occasionally as a paratrooper. "Though it scared me silly, he loved to jump. He took pride in his whole job."

Mitchell had been in Kidal since June, participating as a support soldier in the Trans- Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership program, run by the departments of State and Defense in nine African countries.

Traveling appealed to Mitchell, his mother said, because it allowed him to meet new people and discover new cultures.

She had assumed her son would be safe in Mali because it was not a conflict zone.

"I figured it was just going to be a short-term deployment," she said. "If it was like Afghanistan or Iraq, I would have sent prayers to him every day. But I didn't think that anything would happen in Mali."

Mitchell was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group in Stuttgart, Germany. He and his wife, Sonja, had been married for about a year and a half and had a 3-month-old son, Cameron. They live in Stuttgart.

"She's doing as well as can be," Joan Mitchell said. "With a new baby, there are times when it's really very difficult for her. Getting the news, it's like somebody hit you over the head with a brick."

Nearly 500 people attended Mitchell's memorial service July 16 in Boeblingen, Germany, where he was buried July 19, his mother said.

The funeral chapel was so crowded that some attendees had to wait outside.

Reared in Monterey, Mitchell graduated from Monterey High School in 1990 and earned an associate in arts degree in Russian and Serbo-Croatian in 2002 from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey.

Before his work in Mali, Mitchell had been deployed to the Balkans and served multiple combat tours in Afghanistan.

In addition to being a voracious bookworm and a whiz at role-playing and computer games, Mitchell had a great sense of humor, his mother said.

"It's very hard," she said. "Not just being my only son, he was also my best friend. There was nothing we couldn't talk about."

The investigation of Mitchell's death, the Army's first fatality in that region of Africa related to Operation Enduring Freedom, is ongoing, said Wood, of the U.S. European Command.

The four other soldiers injured in the incident that killed Mitchell were treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Two were then released and two others were transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

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