Drive, service a way to give back

News Article / March 31, 2021

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By Sara White

Chief Warrant Officer Keith Mitchell C.V., M.M.M., M.S.M., CD could add two more years to his exceptional, 40-plus year military service, but he’s calling it a career March 31.

“I’m the highest decorated currently member of the Canadian Armed Forces. I’m a chief warrant officer. I’m happy, I’m healthy. I’m going out at the top of my game.”

It wasn’t always that way.

Mitchell admits to being an unruly kid with a chip on his shoulder, the middle child of three with a single mother who’d left a difficult relationship. They lived in a poor neighbourhood in Montreal, moving year after year from one apartment to a cheaper apartment.

“When I was 10, I got my first paper route – 250 papers, huge – and that contributed to my family,” Mitchell says. “High school was not my thing – I didn’t get my leaving certificate; I failed French. I joined the military as soon as I turned 17, the Army Reserves. The military in Quebec was not a big draw, as the sting of the FLQ crisis and martial law was still a real thing, but I’d always wanted to join.”

In 1980, he joined the Army Reserves, spending four years as a field engineer, learning and experiencing all he could before deciding, “this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I loved all the military could offer me.”

In 1984, Mitchell joined the Regular Force, heading to boot camp in Cornwallis. He knew the difference, then, between Reserve and Regular training, and wanted the full “break you down, build you all up” experience.

His first posting as a combat engineer was in Petawawa, where he went back to school and earned his high school Grade 12 leaving certificate. He was in the Special Service Force as an airborne diver, providing demolition support to the regiment.

“We were building bridges, demolishing infrastructure – first in, last out is the engineer motto. I always wanted to be at the pointy end. I needed to do something physical, or I’d just get into trouble.”

There was even a jungle warfare training with the French Foreign Legion in French Guyana.

After a posting in Ottawa, where he helped work on the new reverse osmosis water purification system later sent to Iraq with the engineers, he applied in 1992 to change his trade to either clearance diver or search and rescue technician. Both came through; he chose SAR-Tech.

“It was a natural crossover – and the element of risk was appealing, pushing me to the edge.”

Why work and train and live so hard and so dangerously?

“The element of risk, combined with the opportunity to help people in dangerous situations appealed to me. I always believed I owed the military something for offering me a life beyond the unstable environment I grew up in. As a solider and aviator, I was able to excel in a demanding environment and still give back.

You see that drive from the beginning: top candidate in his combat engineer course, then para training, the combat leader course, the SAR Tech team leader course. His resume includes commanders’ coins and commendations from multiple levels and nations, the Order of Military Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Star, the Queen’s Diamond and Golden jubilee medals and the Canadian Forces Decoration Second Clasp.

“Work was good, very busy,” Mitchell says, describing his first eight-year SAR posting to 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia. There wasn’t anything different about the November 12, 1996 call that earned him the Cross of Valour – until there was.

“We were flying top cover for a Goose Bay medevac. The helicopter encountered bad weather en route and had to set down and wait it out. We went back out to the boat to do an assessment, and the patient was getting worse. Our job is helping people. So Bryan and I made the decision to go in.”

Then-master corporals Keith Mitchell and Bryan Pierce parachuted out of the Hercules and fought through three-metre, freezing waves towards the Danish trawler before the fishing boat crew could reach them in a Zodiac. Once on board, they provided medical care for 15 hours, as the trawler headed to Iqaluit.

“Bryan and I were SAR coursemates – that speaks a lot, knowing the other’s SAR abilities,” Mitchell says. “I knew his capability, his mindset, and he was very much like me. We knew if one of us got in trouble, the other would be there to help.”

That Cross of Valour is exceptional: since its creation in 1972 within the Canadian system of honours, only two have been awarded to the Royal Canadian Air Force – Mitchell’s and Pierce’s, with three others awarded to Navy personnel. Just 20 have ever been presented by the governor general: only the Victoria Cross ranks higher.

“When I walk in a room in full dress uniform, people do a double take and ask questions – that’s good, because it’s a history lesson that’s not about me: it’s about what the Cross of Valour represents – and what they, too, could do.”

Mitchell left operational SAR work in 2008 and headed to French-language training for a year. He returned to 14 Wing Greenwood in 2009 as a Reserve member, working at Readiness Training Flight, then the Civil Air Search and Rescue program with 413 (Transport and Rescue) Squadron. Taking a position with the wing’s Air Reserve Flight expanded his experience and knowledge, readying him for promotion to chief warrant officer in 2019. He finishes his career with the Director Air Reserve in Ottawa, working remotely from 14 Wing as the non-commissioned members’ career manager.

He’s ready to step back. He and his wife, Melissa, raised two children and enjoy being grandparents. Mitchell spends downtime playing guitar, kayaking and puttering at his home and property with his dog, Sam, by his side. In just the past few years, he’s returned to his family’s roots, looking beyond his early years deeper into history. His own military service adds weight and understanding to what he’s found. His biological father was a stoker in the Canadian Navy, while an uncle joined the United States 173rd Airborne, with time in Vietnam. A grandfather served in the Welsh Home Guard during the Second World War, while a great-uncle was awarded the Military Cross after service and injury behind enemy lines, supporting the French Resistance. He was later awarded the Order of the British Empire for work in Manila with the British Army.

“Knowing what I know now about military service, and what I found out about all of these men while exploring genealogy, they were tough as nails.”

They aren’t the only ones.

Sara White is managing editor of 14 Wing Greenwood’s newspaper, The Aurora, in which the preceding article first appeared.

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