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'House of Hell' survivor awarded Navy Cross
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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (July 28, 2006) -- His
desert utilities shredded by shrapnel and streaked with his own blood
and that of his fellow Marines, Cpl. Robert J. Mitchell Jr. limped out
of the cement block house in downtown Fallujah, Iraq, and into the
annals of Marine Corps history.
The day was Nov. 13, 2004, and according to the Marine Corps’ official
account of the fierce, close quarters battle, Mitchell ignored his own
wounds and repeatedly braved enemy fire to administer first aid to and
evacuate other Marines wounded in the fight.
Nearly two years after that fateful day, in a solemn ceremony at Camp
Pendleton, Calif., Mitchell received the Navy Cross from Lt. Gen. John
F. Sattler, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force. The Navy
Cross is the nation’s second-highest award for battlefield heroism.
“This is a truly special occasion,” said Sattler, addressing the
assembled Marines and guests after presenting the award. “Valor comes
in a scale, and all the Marines, Sailors, and veterans here today know
how rare of an occasion this is.”
As a cool, dry wind snapped the flags around the parade deck, Mitchell
choked back tears as he thanked God, his family, and his fellow Marines
for their support and attending the ceremony.
Mitchell joined the Marine Corps in early 2001, and was on his second
tour in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division when Coalition forces
launched a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive to reclaim Fallujah from
insurgents who had fortified the city.
Dubbed Operation Al Fajr (aka Phantom Fury), the assault on Fallujah
kicked off on Nov. 8, 2004, and quickly turned into a bloody,
street-by-street contest with then-Corporal Mitchell and his fellow
Marines in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, in the
thick of the fighting.
Day by day, Mitchell and his squad pushed through the city,
methodically clearing pockets of enemy resistance as they progressed.
During an assault against an insurgent strong point on Nov. 12,
Mitchell was shot through the right tricep, but ignored the wound to
help destroy the fortified position, and later refused medical
evacuation to remain with his squad.
The next day, an assault against a squat, cement house had gone
horribly wrong and several wounded Marines lay trapped inside with
several well-fortified insurgents waiting in ambush positions.
Mitchell’s squad got the call to come and assist.
“When the call came, we knew we had to get them out,” said Mitchell. “That became the mission – the only mission.”
Once on the scene, the Iowa native quickly established a casualty
collection point and organized his men to assault the building.
Then-1st Sgt. Bradley A. Kasal, the senior enlisted Marine from another
company, joined Mitchell’s squad, and together, they charged the
building and took up firing positions.
The first floor of the house was littered with dead or dying
insurgents, and the wounded Marines lay further inside. Other enemy
fighters were in fortified positions on the roof looking down through a
skylight, creating a kill zone between Mitchell and the wounded
Covered by suppressive fire, Mitchell raced through the kill zone
toward the wounded Marines as the rooftop insurgents showered the room
below with rifle fire and grenades. Shrapnel from one of the grenades
peppered the back of Mitchell’s legs, but he made it to the stranded,
“It was great to see him come in,” said Cpl. Jose Sanchez, an
infantryman from Houston, Texas. “Until he got there I was switching
between treating Carlisle [Lance Cpl. Cory] and providing security.
When Corporal Mitchell came in, he took over the medical treatment and
I could focus on firing at the insurgents.”
A trained combat lifesaver, Mitchell went to work on Carlisle’s
bullet-mangled leg. With his medical supplies running out, he once
again orchestrated suppression of the insurgents on the roof to allow a
corpsman and another Marine to sprint through the kill zone.
By this time, both Kasal and another Marine, Pvt. 1st Class Alex
Nicoll, had been seriously wounded by rifle fire and grenades, and were
holed up inside a small room across the kill zone Mitchell had crossed
only moments before.
Leaving the wounded Marines in the care of the corpsman, Mitchell once
again braved the kill zone, and like before, the insurgents sprayed the
short, treacherous path with bullets and grenades. One bullet smashed
into Mitchell’s M-16A4 assault rifle, shattering the weapon before
ricocheting down and into his right leg. More shrapnel slashed
Mitchell’s legs and face, yet he remained on his feet and made it to
Kasal and Nicoll, who was Mitchell’s former roommate and longtime
Blooding profusely but apparently unmindful of his wounds, Mitchell
began treating the others, applying bandages and direct pressure in an
attempt to staunch the wounded Marines’ blood loss. In the midst of his
life-saving efforts, Mitchell scanned the room and saw a wounded
insurgent, shot earlier by Kasal, make a move for a weapon laying
Mitchell quickly drew his combat knife and lunged forward, driving the
weapon into the insurgent, eliminating the threat for good before
turning his attention back to Kasal and Nicoll. With Marines scattered
throughout the small house and the insurgents still firmly entrenched
on the roof and a nearby stairwell denying access to any additional
forces, the situation was quickly deteriorating.
Through a small, barred window in the room, Mitchell explained to
Marines outside the layout of the house and where Marines were located
throughout the structure. With this information, the Marines were able
to suppress the insurgents on the roof via firing positions on adjacent
structures, and one-by-one, extract the wounded Marines from the
building which has since been dubbed the “House of Hell.”
The photograph of a bloody Kasal, now a sergeant major and himself a
Navy Cross recipient, being helped from the house by two Marines is one
of the more resonant images of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Despite his own severe wounds, Mitchell was among the last to leave the
house, and did so assisting another wounded Marine. Demolition charges
were quickly flung into the house, and the resulting explosion caused
the building to collapse, killing the diehard insurgents.
While other casualties from the short, yet intense, fight were loaded
onto vehicles and driven to a nearby aid station, Mitchell gathered the
remnants of his squad and led them back to the Kilo Company
headquarters where he finally received treatment for his wounds.
Less than two weeks later, Mitchell was on his way home from Iraq.
Though non-debilitating, his injuries suffered during Operation Al
Fajr, combined with those from a mortar attack in July, were enough to
convince the Marines the time had come to order Mitchell to leave the
combat zone. In a November 2004 interview with a Marine combat
correspondent, Mitchell voiced his concerns about being ordered to
leave Iraq, but was resigned to his fate.
"Being told by my [commanding officer], sergeant major, platoon
commander and all my buddies that I have done enough – that helps to
ease my thoughts," said Mitchell. "It is supportive, but at the same
time, I came out here to lead a squad and finish the job."
Mitchell, who left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in March 2005,
traveled to Camp Pendleton to receive the award with his wife, Sara,
and seven-month-old son, Robert III, from their current home in Phoenix
where Mitchell works as a motorcycle mechanic. Other family members and
friends, including Nicoll, made the trip as well.
“Mitchell’s a Marine’s Marine, and I always looked to him as a role
model” said Sanchez, who earned a Bronze Star Medal for valor during
the fight for Fallujah. “I’m really happy to see him receive this
The 26-year-old former Marine is unassuming, almost self-effacing, about receiving the Navy Cross.
“It’s very overwhelming, but I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Mitchell
said in an interview after the ceremony, pausing every few minutes to
chat with well-wishers and pose for pictures. “It’s an honor – the
biggest honor I could ever fathom.”
Mitchell is the eleventh Marine to earn the Navy Cross for battlefield
service in Iraq. Another Marine received the coveted award earlier this
year for heroism in Afghanistan.