Larry Rivera drove over the Gandy Bridge with the ashes of a man he’d never met.
This was before he was on a first-name basis with the urn. It was before he figured out exactly whose ashes were in it.
No one was sure what to do. Not the tenants who found the black and gold urn abandoned in the crawlspace of their St. Petersburg rental home. Not the dutiful neighbor they gave it to, who knew the dog tags found with it meant they had to do something and called a friend at MacDill Air Force Base.
And not Rivera, who ended up with the ashes.
Rivera is a fixer at the base. He’s jocular, fast-talking and tireless at 66, a former Army captain working as a special case advocate for U.S. Special Operations Command’s Warrior Care Program.
When a service member has a crisis — say, a serious illness or family emergency — he forms a plan. Travel arrangements, time off, someone to talk to, whatever they need. His work phone rings day and night.
“I have to fight for them,” Rivera said. “I have to get things done.”
So when his boss assigned him the case of the urn, he drove to St. Petersburg and brought the ashes back to his South Tampa apartment. He put the urn in the china cabinet next to the dinner table.
He started working. He’d never handled anything like this. There was no protocol.
He thought it might take a couple days to figure out who this person was and where these long-lost ashes belonged. Instead, he spent nearly seven months with them.
He started talking to the urn. He had lived that man’s life. His pain. His child’s pain. When the end of the mystery was near, he turned to the urn.
"I think I’m gonna miss you, Mitch, buddy.”
The dog tags read “Mitchell, Albert.”
At first, Rivera tried to simply turn it all over to the Veterans Administration. But a service in a national cemetery requires not only military service, but an honorable discharge. And anyone can get dog tags made for a few dollars. The VA needed definitive proof. Or it could inter the ashes anonymously.
“This man’s no John Doe,” Rivera said. “I wasn’t doing that.”
Rivera enlisted help. He had met Jean Bennett Stratis after the death of her husband, an Army colonel. She was lost in grief and the system. Her children’s military benefits had suddenly stopped. Rivera helped her fix it.
“You’re not going to get rid of me so easily,” she told him when it was over. “I’m going to make sure no other military family goes through this ever again.”
They founded the nonprofit Global Military Family Coalition. When Rivera got the urn, he called on Stratis.
They tried looking up Mitchell with the Social Security number on the dog tags to get a copy of his military discharge. Nothing came up.
After frustrating weeks, Rivera realized the number was wrong by a single digit on one of the tags — it must have been a commercially-made replacement — but correct on the other one.
They had the first piece of the puzzle.
Major Albert L. Mitchell enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1958 and was commissioned as an officer in 1959. He served three tours in Vietnam, went through special forces training and became a Green Beret. He received the Bronze Star with Valor, the Army Air Medal for Heroism in Aerial Flight twice and a number of other medals. He learned Burmese. He worked in counter-intelligence and some of what he did is still classified, Rivera said. He retired in 1978 with a highly distinguished service record. Mitchell qualified for a burial with military honors.
But the VA wanted a death certificate, too. Rivera and Stratis didn’t know when Mitchell died. No obituary was ever published. They asked Vital Statistics to search for a death certificate using a range of possible dates.
It costs $12 per day. So that comes to $8,688.
“I need a waiver,” he told the employee.
There are no waivers.
“I picked up my socks off the floor the other morning,” he said. "My wife says there’s a first time for everything.”
The office of Vital Statistics relented, he said, and gave him the certificate for $9. Mitchell died at 72 in 2010.
But what they found on the death certificate stopped them. It listed a next of kin. A daughter.
* * *
Mitchell’s daughter Charleene Mitchell Cox was 54 and married with children and living in North Carolina.
Stratis tracked her down via Facebook. Cox was apprehensive. She’d heard her father didn’t want any fuss or military honors.
After the Army, Mitchell divorced. His ex-wife and daughter lived in another state. Mitchell moved in with his brother in St. Petersburg. When he died, his brother held onto the ashes. Then the brother died. Then the estate lawyer died. The house sat empty. At one point it was set for demolition.
Cox had been in touch with her father often by phone before his death and had hoped to eventually have a service for him, but when her uncle died she lost track of the urn. She didn’t know where it was until Rivera’s call.
“It was, unfortunately, a very typical story,” Rivera said. “The guy comes home after Vietnam, and things fell apart. He drinks too much. He gets divorced. ... He’s probably haunted by things he did, and the things he didn’t do. And most of those guys will say, ‘I don’t want honors’."
Rivera needed to know Mitchell’s character outside of uniform. He needed something to show the daughter to convince her and he needed it for himself, too. What if he was a really bad guy?
As the months went by, he started to relate to the man in the urn. This was a fellow infantry officer also from New York. As he saw it, both had sacrificed time with family in service to their country. They both understood things others just didn’t.
Rivera and Stratis saw a newspaper article mentioning the Flamingo, a 50-year-old watering hole owned by a Vietnam vet. On a hunch, he brought a photo there.
“That’s Mitch," the old-timers said. They called him a good friend.
They found one of Mitchell’s old neighbors who remembered the older man as helpful but quiet about any military service. That was, until the neighbor’s son joined the Marines at 17. He opened up. He started giving the young man advice.
They found a commendation from a three-star general. It thanked Mitchell for his volunteer work helping thousands of veterans get medical care in the 1980s.
“He was an advocate for them,” Rivera said. “Like me.”
The last thing they found was a sympathy card for Mitchell’s brother when Mitchell died. It was signed by “Slick," “Papa Smurf," “Gypsy” and dozens of others who called Mitchell “brilliant" and “a brother.” But who were these people?
Rivera tracked down the one person who had signed his full name. The card was from members of a Pinellas County sober living social club. AA meetings are held there.
“What’s that tell me?” Rivera said, choking up. “He tried.”
Rivera thought of something that had nagged at him for a while. Once, his granddaughter had called him and asked if he could come to a recital. Rivera overheard his daughter in the background.
You’ll have to learn to deal with disappointment like I did. He missed a lot of things of mine and I turned out okay.
She was joking, but Rivera sensed it wasn’t simply a joke.
His time with Mitch spurred Rivera to call his daughter. He asked her if she was really okay. He said he was sorry for the things he missed.
Often, returning Vietnam vets weren’t thanked for their service. Sometimes they were treated as the face of an unpopular war. And despite the traumas they endured, they didn’t come home to a safety net of services. There was no Warrior Care Program. There were no Larry Riveras. Maybe things could have been different for Mitchell if there had been. Maybe not.
Rivera wrote a letter to Mitchell’s daughter asking her to reconsider having a service and laying out his case.
Your father’s military service to the nation, to his units and the soldiers he led leaves no doubt among us that we need to honor him if not for himself, his family and our U.S. military traditions, but most importantly to bestow upon him the long overdue words of a grateful nation: “Welcome home and thank you, Mitch."
Weeks passed. He finally got a text back from her: Let’s honor my father.
Rivera took Mitchell out of the china cabinet and poured a glass of scotch.
Albert L. Mitchell was laid to rest at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg on Friday.
About two dozen people attended his funeral. Mitchell’s daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and grandson, an Army Private First Class, who wore his battle dress uniform, traveled from North Carolina to be there.
Rivera spoke and told them his story of living with Mitchell. He reminded everyone that sometimes those who serve, “pay with our relationships to loved ones.” He told them that he’d been calling his own kids and having tough conversations with his wife. He thanked Mitchell for that.
“At 1 p.m. today, I had to give Mitch back to his family,” Rivera said. “I didn’t say goodbye, though. I just said see ya later.”
Taps played. The honor guard fired rifles. Two soldiers folded an American flag and handed it to Mitchell’s daughter. She hugged it tight to her chest, put her face down and cried.
About the story
Larry Rivera called the Tampa Bay Times after reading reports of an Oct. 1 service at Sarasota National Cemetery service for veteran Edward K. Pearson, which drew 1,500 strangers and caused a traffic jam on the highway. Pearson’s obituary said he died with no family, and invited the public to attend his funeral, causing a social media frenzy. It was later revealed that Pearson actually had sons, who said he walked out on them. Rivera wanted people to also know the story of Albert Mitchell. In Rivera’s research to learn the character of the man in the urn, he did not shy away from his human flaws, but stressed that all veterans who served their country honorably deserve thanks.