25 years of service before self

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jose R. Davis
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
"Humility or humiliation."

That is a maxim that Col. Max B. Mitchell has held himself to for 25 years of service in the U.S. Air Force; a maxim for which I had the honor of learning firsthand from him.

Col. Max "Myway" Mitchell officially retired from the U.S. Air Force Oct. 11, after serving as the vice wing commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB.

"I have been blessed to be in the United States Air Force," Colonel Mitchell said, "which I think everyone would agree is the premier Air Force in the world."

Colonel Mitchell graduated from Texas A&M University in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering. He knew from the outset that he wanted to serve in the military and attend college. In his adolescence, he was an avid reader of World War II fiction and history books.

"I always knew I wanted to serve," said Colonel Mitchell. "I loved the stories of flying."

He applied to several colleges and actively sought various military scholarships to help pay. Texas A&M approached him, writing to him, that they couldn't offer him a scholarship immediately but encouraging him to apply anyway with the future incentive of a scholarship.

At that point, the scholarship mattered little in comparison to the university's outreach.

"It wasn't so much the scholarship, but that they reached out to me and said, 'hey this is what we've got to offer.'"

Showing that you actually care may be what matters most to an Airman, and that is what Colonel Mitchell always did for me, as Texas A&M did for him.

One weekend, I was in the office trying to catch up with an overabundance of work. As I toiled and labored at my desk over memorandums, taskers and requests, I looked up to see Colonel Mitchell standing over me. I immediately stood up, fearing for my life. I filtered through my thoughts trying to think of what I messed up. To my surprise, he had noticed my vehicle outside the headquarters building and decided to walk in to have a cordial chat with me about anything and everything. Colonel Mitchell and I talked about the Air Force, leadership lessons and Texas Aggie football.

After Texas A&M, he joined the Air Force. Because his eye sight was not good enough, he was disqualified from becoming a pilot but he wanted to fly no matter what, so in 1989 he entered specialized undergraduate navigator training at Mather Air Force Base, Calif. Soon he was at Castle AFB, Calif., learning how to navigate the mighty B-52 Stratofortress.

"I love dropping bombs out of the B-52."


Mitchell's first duty assignment was at Carswell Air Force Base, Texas. In those days, there were only B-52G and B-52H models left, in which Mitchell navigated both. Additionally, on multiple occasions, Mitchell would sit alert, similar to what missile crew officers do, before B-52 alert discontinued in 1991.

At Barksdale, his next duty assignment, Mitchell held various positions in both the 20th Bomb Squadron and the 2nd Operations Support Squadron. A usual tour at the base was about three years.

"I was at Barksdale for 10 and a half years."

In that time, Mitchell deployed 10 times, including deployments in support of Operations ALLIED FORCE in Yugoslavia and ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan. He flew a myriad of sorties and remained loyal to the B-52 airframe.

Before he arrived at Barksdale AFB, there were 10 operational B-52 bases in the country, each one with its own unique and specific mission; by the time Colonel Mitchell left Barksdale, there were only two bases left for the B-52: Barksdale AFB, La. and Minot AFB, N.D.

In July 2005, he arrived at Minot AFB, for the first time to serve as commander of the 5th Operations Support Squadron, and later as the chief of safety for the 5th Bomb Wing.

"I was fortunate to have worked with him at Minot AFB as his director of operations when he was the commander for the 5th OSS," said Col. Reid M. Langdon, now commander of the 36th Operations Group at Andersen AFB, Guam. In jest, he added, "I never understood why he ever wanted to be an Aggie, but besides that one fault, I can't think of any reason I wouldn't follow him anywhere.

"He has genuine concern for those he leads and their families, and there isn't anything he wouldn't do if someone was struggling. He and his wife Kim make an outstanding leadership team because they are humble, and they know the importance of serving others first."

In the four years at Minot AFB, Colonel Mitchell became acclimated to the unique and endearing culture of the wing and Team Minot.

"There was never any doubt in my mind that the wing up here was a very proud wing," said Colonel Mitchell. "Minot seems to me to have the best community support of any base that I've been at."

Colonel Mitchell left Minot momentarily with stints at Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., and back at Barksdale AFB, La., where he served as chief of the programming division for the newly activated Air Force Global Strike Command.

On June 26, 2011, he returned to Minot in the midst of the Souris River flood. Now as vice wing commander of the 5th BW, Colonel Mitchell immediately confronted the catastrophe.

"I knew Minot was having problems; it happened right before we left for Minot," Mitchell recalled. "When we got up here, we found out how bad it was."

More than 1,000 Airmen and their families were displaced from their homes as the result of the Souris River flooding, which began June 20, 2011.

Colonel Mitchell himself, upon arriving at Minot, went immediately to work, reporting for duty at the command post to assess the situation.

"I'm proud of the work that Minot AFB did to help, not only their own, but others in town, civilians as well," Colonel Mitchell recounted. "We couldn't prevent the flood, but we could mitigate it."

Considering the flood was of such historical proportions, the fact that there were zero dead, injured or missing was very impressive and spoke a lot to how the city, the county and the base helped out, Colonel Mitchell recalled.

Some in North Dakota have even acknowledged that if it wasn't for Minot AFB's dedication to helping and aiding the surrounding communities, the city of Velva, N.D., would have been washed away.

"I'm proud, humbled, and honored to know Col. Mitchell," said Brig. Gen. Jim Dawkins, principle assistant deputy administrator for military application at the national security administration for the Department of Energy, and former 5th BW commander. "He made a huge impression to the U.S. Air Force, the local area and the B-52 community writ large."

In the span of two years, the 5th BW leadership spent a significant amount of time and effort improving morale, increasing resiliency and bringing in more personnel to augment various duties. Much of what they envisioned is now becoming reality.

"We worked as hard as we could," Colonel Mitchell reminisced. "I just tried to stay in the background and help out with all the paperwork and to get things rolling, so to help the commander's vision come to fruition.

"I liken the vice wing command to 'Dirty Harry'; every dirty job you get, whether you do the night shift or some other stuff, whatever it takes so the commander can be out and his face can be out in front of the troops, so he has time to go see what's happening. Whatever it took, that's what I would do. I knew that coming into the job and I didn't shy away from it."

In 2013, the 5th BW won the Air Force Most Outstanding Unit award. Minot AFB was also named AFGSC's winner for the 2013 Commander-in-Chief's Installation Excellence Award.

Now, after 25 years of service, from garnering nearly 4,000 hours in the B-52, of which 138 were combat hours, to helping build up the 5th BW and the base to what it is today, Colonel Mitchell's humble career has come to an end.

"It doesn't seem like 25 years," Colonel Mitchell mused. "I think you hear that a lot so for any of the younger folks - time really does pass quickly.

"I have no complaints. Twenty-five years is long enough for me and it's time for someone else to do this. I'll miss a lot of it, but it's time to go."

At his farewell dinner, Colonel Mitchell's parting words to everyone in attendance were to always serve honorably, in everything, whether you make the Air Force a career or you enter in the civilian sector. His 25-year career is emblematic of his entreaty; if one is to take nothing else from his time in the military, take his beliefs of honor and humility.

Usually, in the course of human events, when confronted with a situation, one ends up with either humility or humiliation. Colonel Mitchell taught me that humility is its own reward and that is one reason why "service before self" is honorable; choosing otherwise usually leads to humiliation.

"It all adds up," Colonel Mitchell imparted to me during my final interview for this story.
"Depending on how you look at it and how you do it, will depend on what comes out on the other end and how well it's received - and if you see an effect for your efforts."