BALLSTON SPA – The resumption of a Saratoga County program that’s honored more than 300 deceased veterans in 22 years took on an exceedingly personal tone Tuesday.
The latest honoree, Robert G. Mitchell, a U.S. Navy veteran of the Korean War, later served as the county’s longtime veteran’s services director, helping to create the very program that honored him, in August 1999.
The program was on pause for about 19 months because of the pandemic, and sadly, Mitchell died in August at age 85, with the coronavirus a contributing factor to his death, along with other health ailments, Mitchell’s successor, Frank McClement, said.
During the event, Tom Richardson, chairman of the Saratoga County Veterans Committee, read a proclamation of the highest order:
“The United States of America honors the memory of Robert G. Mitchell. This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted, selfless consecration to the service of our country and the Armed Forces of the United States of America.”
It was signed by President Joe Biden.
After the ceremony, Mitchell’s son, Glen, said:
“I’m just very thankful that a lot of people said a lot of nice things about my dad… My dad was in the Navy for 20 years. He was a veteran’s director for 21 years – and he loved every minute of it. He loved helping veterans. That was his whole life.”
Glen said he “couldn’t believe” the acknowledgment from the president.
“When we saw that, we tried to keep it together.”
A native of Saratoga Springs, Mitchell enlisted during the war in May 1953, eventually assigned to a “destroyer” known for its participation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a support ship for Project Mercury space missions.
He served five years on foreign seas, retiring in June 1973 as a first-class petty officer. His military accolades include the National Defense Service Medal.
McClement, director of the Saratoga County Veterans Service Agency, said the acknowledgment of deceased veterans was the county’s highest honor, and this event was particularly emotional.
Robert Mitchell advocated for veterans benefits for McClement’s father, a Vietnam war veteran who spent six months in a rehabilitation facility after a massive stroke in 2000. At that time, McClement said, it was more challenging for veterans to get those benefits.
“A lot of the things that veterans receive today have changed,” McClement said. “Truth be told, us as veteran service officers, our job can be difficult. But in a lot of ways it’s much easier than it was then. And a lot of that is because of people like Bob.
“A lot of the conditions associated with Agent Orange exposure and some of these environmental exposures were not presumptive – they weren’t slam dunk cases,” McClement said. “They require a lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of effort. Bob took my dad in, worked with him, talked about his situation with his military service and gave him the documentation.”
Directing his comments toward Mitchell’s family – Glen, Mitchell’s daughter, Lisa Redcross, and granddaughter Baylee Mitchell, among other relatives – McClement said with tears in his eyes: “It was because of your dad that my dad was taken care of.”
Mitchell presided over his last deceased veterans’ program in 2010.
McClement went on to praise Mitchell for being a cheerleader for the county office.
He told a story of how Mitchell initiated Paul Mosseau, the county veterans service officer, by pranking him during a phone call to the office during which a “Bob Smith” grilled Mosseau about veterans benefits. The retired director then busted out laughing before revealing his identity.
From then on, the office referred to Mitchell as Bob Smith.
Saratoga County District Attorney Karen Heggen said Mitchell always parked his car right around the corner from the back door to her office, often greeting her with a smile while probing her about which court she’d been in, and which cases she worked on.
“He represents the generation of men who stepped up and volunteered to fight for our freedoms in this country, freedoms that we cherish and my office deals with each and every day,” Heggen said.
A representative of the office of Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-NY, gave the family a flag that was flown in Mitchell’s honor over the Nation’s Capital, and Stefanik read a proclamation into the Congressional record.
The flag was raised outside the Saratoga County building, where it will remain for 30 days, at which time it will be encased and presented to Mitchell’s family.
Board chairman of county supervisors Theodore Kusnierz Jr., County Clerk Craig Hayner, state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, and a representative of the office of Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake also gave the family proclamations.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.