ANDERSONVILLE – The early morning rain stopped and the clouds rolled back to reveal a blue sky. The perfect rows of white grave markers stretching across the rolling hills sparkled in the sunshine.
The hearse arrived, followed by a parade of riders on 11 motorcycles bedecked with American flags.
The riders lined up along one walkway, and friends and fellow officers stood opposite them and on the lawn in between.
Then came the family in five cars, and they climbed the stone steps to the covered rostrum where speeches are made on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
But this was no day for rousing speeches. It was a day for quiet words of comfort and thanks and praise for a life of service as Col. Stephen E. Mittuch of the U.S. Air Force Reserves was laid to rest at Andersonville National Cemetery.
He died April 5 in Atlanta, where he had been attending a seminar, after a car going the wrong way on Interstate 75 slammed into the taxi cab he was taking to the airport.
Mittuch, 46, was commander of the 419th Maintenance Group at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. But he had grown up in Houston County, graduating from Northside High School in 1980. He had served at Robins Air Force Base in the past.
His parents, Eugene and Eileen Mittuch, live in Centerville, while his sister Anna Lowery lives in Byron and his sister Patricia Compton lives in Bonaire. He also is survived by his wife, Cinde Mittuch, his brother, Air Force Col. Eugene Mittuch, one niece and 10 nephews.
At the start of the service, Mittuch was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit for his leadership of the 460 reservists, Air Force Reserve technicians and civilians of 419th Maintenance Group since Jan. 2, 2007. The citation lauded him for expertly managing people and mission while increasing sortie production by 18 percent in the Air Force Reserve Command’s first F-16 classic associate unit.
Col. Walter Sams, commander of the 419th Fighter Wing, said he had only known Mittuch two years, but they became fast friends when they learned they were both from Georgia (Sams is from Sylvester) and had both graduated from the University of Georgia the same year.
“We didn’t know each other there or previously in the Air Force, but we became friends because we had so many common bonds,” Sams said.
“He was by far the finest officer in the 419th Fighter Wing and was a rising star in the Air Force Reserve. He was going to the highest levels. And he had been decorated numerous times for his work as a long distance air battle manager in the E-3 AWACS before he came to us. It is such a tragic loss to lose him this way.”
Mittuch’s brother, who is stationed in Germany, said he seldom got to see his younger brother after they followed their father, a retired chief master sergeant, into the Air Force.
“We were never stationed at the same place at the same time. Usually we were on opposite ends of the world,” he said. “But we kept in touch by phone and e-mail. Steve was a fine officer and man. It was never about him. He loved serving, whether in the Air Force or in the Peace Corps when he was right out of college.”
Chaplain David Pendleton read Scripture and offered prayers to start the service. The Rev. Johnny Ellison, the family’s pastor, talked of how Andersonville National Cemetery was a fitting place for the service and for Mittuch’s interment.
“This land speaks. It speaks of lives that have been lived. It speaks of duty, honor, patriotism and sacrifice to a nation of grateful citizens. And it speaks of the brevity of life on this Earth,” Ellison said, adding that eternal life is available to those who believe Jesus’ words that he is the way to that abundant life.
Then there was a moment of silence, which was punctuated with three volleys by the seven riflemen standing to the left. Then a flight of four fighters from the 482nd Fighter Wing flew overhead, with one streaking up and away in the missing man maneuver. As the roar of the jet engines faded, a lone bugler played taps.
The honor guard finished folding the flag that had draped Mittuch’s casket, and it and two others were presented to his wife, mother and father.
Finally, the family’s friends and Mittuch’s fellow officers, who arrived from all over the country, filed up the stone steps to offer their condolences to his family.
A drop or two of rain fell near the end of the service, but soon the sky cleared again, and the sun shone brightly.
“He would have loved the service,” Eugene Mittuch said of his brother. “It was very fitting and full of precision, everything right on time. He would have enjoyed it.”
To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.