May 26, 2016 --
With a 30-year active-duty career in his rearview mirror, one Sailor stationed at Naval Branch Health Clinic-Albany, located aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, transitioned to retired, civilian status at a “fair winds” celebration held in his honor in Orange Park, Florida, May 14.
A standing-room-only crowd of witnesses, some donned in a sea of U.S. Navy summer uniforms and others in white civilian attire, poured into the Orange Park Women’s Club, to celebrate the honoree, Lt. Cmdr. Donald Mitchell, senior nurse executive, NBHC-Albany, at his retirement ceremony.
Attendees listened in total silence, as Mitchell, who had a single-service place setting and other items strategically displayed on a table in the back of the room, kicked off his own ceremony by remembering and honoring missing service members and “fallen shipmates.”
During the commemoration, the honoree directed everyone’s attention to the Prisoners of War/Missing in Action table he prepared for the event and read the traditional ceremonial speech explaining the meaning of each item, after which, he issued a challenge to his guests.
“Live for the now,” Mitchell encouraged attendees. “The people that you love – tell them you love them, because tomorrow is not promised.”
From that point forward, Mitchell paid tribute to men and women he has lost along his 30-year journey. He specifically spoke of the 47 “naval brothers” he lost in an explosion on the USS Iowa in 1989; two more of his close friends, who were fallen comrades and to the memory of his father.
Mitchell presented individual Certificates of Appreciation to his mother, his wife, his sister, and to his two sons for their support and the sacrifices during his absence. He also expressed his gratitude by awarding additional certificates to several groups of family members in attendance as well.
After reading one rendition of “Old Glory,” Mitchell presented American flags to his wife and mother, respectively, and gave other awards to several guests he said had greatly impacted his life from childhood to manhood as well as his military career and his professional growth over the decades.
While Mitchell used much of his ceremony to recognize and reward family and friends, others used the opportunity to honor him.
Mitchell's eldest son, Davon, a recent University of South Florida graduate, said he considered it a privilege to deliver his father’s retirement speech.
“My dad asked me to give a speech for this occasion and, of course, I was honored to do so,” Davon said. “Like the typical young adult, I waited until the last minute to do so; mostly, because I was unsure of what to say.
“How do you put into words 30 years of service, 23 of which I’ve been a part? How do you recognize the significance of this milestone in a way that thoughtfully acknowledges the parts of this whole? It was intimidating to say the least.
“Thankfully, my graduation from the University of South Florida (coincided) with my dad’s retirement,” he continued. “So, I thought it would be appropriate to use this speech to shine the light on some of the life lessons my dad has learned throughout his life and career; (lessons) he has instilled in me that have shaped me and continue to shape me as a man and as a human being.”
There was no shortage of other family members and longtime friends who offered comments.
His mother, Alberta Mitchell, commented on first getting the news of her son’s plans to enlist into the Navy.
“It was about 12 or one o’clock one night, he called me and said, ‘Mom, I’ve got a better way out for me and for you,’ she recalled. “I asked, ‘What is it son?’ He said, ‘I’m going into the Navy.’”
Alberta said her son’s retirement is not an end, but rather a new beginning in his career.
“I don’t consider his career as ending,” she said of her firstborn. “But, I am very happy for him and I know he’s going to find something else to do; he’s just that type of person.”
Natalie Mitchell, the retiree’s wife, has been with him through 23 years of transitions throughout his Navy career; from enlisted, (petty officer 3rd class) to commissioned officer (current rank, lieutenant commander).
“I am excited for him as well as our family,” Natalie said of her husband’s retirement. “This way, he is (home). He would be the one who would travel and we would stay home because the kids would be in school.
“Ten years into his Navy career, he was about ready to give it up,” she explained. “He did another 20 years after that. I’m so proud of him, because he stayed the course. He deserves this (celebration), because he has worked very hard for it.
“He has a job already,” she continued, while laughing. “Thank God, it’s here in Jacksonville.”
Mitchell’s friend and fellow Sailor, Tijuana Milton, traveled from Savannah, Georgia, and discussed his longtime relationship and how their paths crossed in 2004.
“We were already commissioned at that point,” Milton said. “That was just officers’ training and familiarization with concepts of the Navy. From there, we had our first duty station together at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, (Florida).
“I also retired as a lieutenant commander after 31 years of service,” he continued. “Actually, both of us pretty much followed the same track; he was an independent duty corpsman on submarines and I was an independent duty corpsman on ships. We had that in common and that made us bond even more.
“It is certainly wonderful to see a fellow (Sailor) accomplish the same (milestone),” Milton added. “It is just outstanding that he achieved the (American College of Healthcare Executives) fellow’s certification. He’s achieving to his full potential; that’s what he does. This is truly a significant and wonderful accomplishment as an African-American officer in the Navy and to go on and become a fellow -- it’s just few and far between. Excellent.”
Cmdr. Raymond Bristol, officer in charge, NBHC-Albany, MCLB Albany, who served as the retiring official for the celebration, had nothing but good things to say about the character and the commitment of his senior nurse executive.
“Commander Mitchell was the senior nurse executive and the head of Primary Care and Administration,” Bristol said. “This was his last stop in a 30-year career. He has done over half of that time enlisted; he was a physical therapy technician, and did a lot of his time as a submarine independent duty corpsman.
“The biggest thing and the reason he had his retirement celebration, rather than a ceremony in the traditional sense of what we normally see, was to recognize the impact of the support from his friends and family,” he pointed out. “As you could see by the participation, there were a lot of people there, who helped him along the way. He wanted to have that personal touch and not the formalities of a retirement ceremony, which most of his family would not have been able to attend had it been done (in Albany).
“I’m pretty much in the same boat as Commander Mitchell, which is being in over 30 years,” Bristol noted. “So, you recognize how much time you spend away from family; how much time you spend away from friends. It was amazing to see how close of a connection he still had with some of the people even before he came into the Navy. And, how he still built relationships and kept those alive throughout his career.”
“Mitch is going to be sorely missed here,” Bristol added. “We all come and go as we wear the uniform, but the clinic staff is really going to feel that pain of having him walk out the door. It takes some time to get used to that loss. Fortunately for us, he’s been back several times since he’s been officially gone. Although he’s officially on terminal leave, and already has another job, he said, ‘I want to be back to make sure I give (my replacement) a good turnover.’ That’s just the way he is—a great team player, a wonderful Sailor, a wonderful officer and someone I consider to be a good friend.”
The retiree's two daughters, along with scores of other relatives Mitchell recognized and awarded at the ceremony, were also in attendance for his retirement celebration.