Michelle Witmer

SPC Michelle M. Witmer – April 2011 Shipment Honoree

The true story of Army SPC Michelle M. Witmer,
assigned to the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company.

Michele Witmer with local kids
Michele Witmer with local kids

On the night of April 9, 2003, Michelle’s squad was called in to help protect an Iraqi police station that was being overrun by insurgents. Michelle, who usually drove the vehicle, instead acted as gunner that night. Minutes before she headed out, she sent an e-mail to her twin sister Charity (a medic in Baghdad), about their sister Rachel, who was also an MP stationed with the 32nd MPC in Baghdad.

The e-mail said, “Hi, sweetie bear. I love you. We are about to head out. Things have gotten really bad. I’m really worried about Rachel. She is [patrolling] in a bad part of town. I hope you will be ok. I just want you to know I love you for ever.”

Michelle and Rachel saw each other before they left that evening, in vehicle convoys headed for different parts of the city. Here are their own words about the events of April 9, taken from e-mail messages and interviews.

Michelle wrote, “We had a briefing telling us to prepare ourselves as best as possible for what lies ahead. I guess every convoy that’s gone up north so far has taken fire or been ambushed. The question of whether we will or not is not even really a question, more like a guess as to when.”

Michelle with sisters
Michelle with sisters

Rachel said, “I was in a gunner truck. I remember looking over and seeing my sister as a gunner. That’s odd. She’s usually the driver. I smiled at her. She smiled back at me. To this day I will kick myself, I had an urge to run over to her and hug her and tell her to be safe.”

There was something different in Michelle’s face, Rachel says. “It was more stoic than usual and she just—I don’t know if people know what’s going to happen to them, but she just—she had this calm, stoic look on her face.” Then Michelle waved goodbye, and it was the last time Rachel saw her.

Looking back, Michelle’s sister Charity also noticed something different about her twin sibling. “She just was so—at peace with herself, and with life. And [in] retrospect it’s just incredible to me. It was like she knew.”

“As I understand it, the patrol that Michelle was with was three Humvees, and they found themselves in the middle of a three-block-long ambush. All hell broke loose and there was fire from every direction.”

Michelle returned fire with her 50-caliber rail-mounted machine gun. Although she wore extensive protective gear, a single enemy bullet found an Achilles heel, striking below her arm and piercing her heart.

When Michelle was killed, she was supposed to serve only five more days of patrol duty before preparing to leave Iraq.

 Hundreds turn out to remember slain soldier

By Carrie Antlfinger, Associated Press

 BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Michelle Witmer told her two sisters when she was 10 years old that she wanted to be a hero.

“She was a hero when she died,” her identical twin, Charity, told more than 600 people Wednesday night at a memorial service for the 20-year-old, who died Friday in Iraq where all three sisters served with the National Guard.

Charity Witmer told the mourners that Michelle had told her and their older sister Charity as they talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up: “Seriously, I could push someone off a bridge and save them.”

That brought chuckles from the crowd.

But tears quickly followed for many when Charity added, “It wasn’t by saving someone in a lake. She was a hero when she died.”

Major Gen. Albert Wilkening, adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard, presented Witmer’s family, of New Berlin, with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the National Defense Service Medal.

Michelle’s father and mother read from Michelle’s e-mails.

She had sent one to many people, updating them on her life. She said she was working night shifts and rarely got a day off.

Her mother, Lori, told how just a year before, Michelle was a college student and her only worries were restocking the ramen noodles.

She read an e-mail that Michelle addressed to her father, with the subject line “Daddy,” pondering how the last year had changed her perspective on life, culture, war and things worth dying for.

“She began to think of her many experiences … and she preferred to think of them as spices that gave the story of her life a richer flavor.”

Charity, who tried hard to hold back tears, described Michelle as a klutz who loved candy.

“Michelle was a loving, empathetic woman, more wonderful than words can describe,” she said. “She loved the drama, she loved the cheese, she loved to tell stories.”

She also said her sister was at peace when she died.

“One of the last times I saw Michelle she gave me a big hug and kiss and said I love you. It was a gift from God. She was at such a good place when she left this world.”

Brig. Gen. Kerry Denson, commander of the Wisconsin National Guard, said Michelle was very proud of her contributions to the Iraqi freedom.

Two large photographs of Witmer, including one of Michelle dressed in fatigues, stood at the front of the auditorium at Elmbrook Church.

Witmer, a specialist with the 32nd Military Police Company, was the first Wisconsin National Guard soldier to die in military combat in 60 years. She was assigned to the U.S. Army military police, doing police work in Baghdad.

Her sister Rachel, 24, also served in the 32nd, which was sent overseas last May. Charity was sent to Iraq late last year as a medic with Company B of the Wisconsin Guard’s 118th Medical Battalion.

The sisters were granted leave and returned home Monday. They were still deciding whether to return to Iraq.

Gov. Jim Doyle attended the memorial service and told the state deeply respects the service and sacrifice they have given.

“We will support you and your family in whatever the future may bring,” he said.

Outside the church auditorium, scents of the large floral arrangements filled the air as mourners looked at collages of snapshots of Witmer and her family and friends.

The 2nd Platoon of her company sent an arrangement of flowers with a card that read: “Michelle, you’re always one of us in our hearts and minds.”

Wisconsin Guard members in Iraq mourn for slain comrade

Wisconsin National Guard members serving in Baghdad held each other and sobbed at a memorial service for a fellow soldier killed in an ambush last week.

Lee Sensenbrenner of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., was in Baghdad and reported on Thursday’s service at a compound near the Tigris River to honor Spc. Michelle Witmer, who served with the Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company. The last time a Wisconsin Guard member was killed in combat was in World War II.

“People tell me that she did not die in vain, but I struggle with that concept,” Spc. Shizuko Jackson of Milwaukee told hundreds of troops at the service. “She was just 20 years old and had so much to live for.”

Jackson noted, “We will remember how much she loved the Iraqi children, the Iraqi people. Those who a lot of us view as the enemy, she helped.”

The 32nd suddenly had its tour of duty extended for another four months shortly after Witmer died. The company has been in Iraq for nearly a year.

“She rescued our minds from the loneliness and solitude brought about by a deployment that at times seems like it will never end,” said Sgt. Nora Prohaska, of Milwaukee.

Jackson, who is with the 32nd, spoke of how much Witmer loved her family, including her twin, Charity Witmer, who is a medic with another Guard unit, and her sister Rachel, 24, who is with the 32nd.

“We’re all scared about this extension. We’re all hurt and angry and tired. Michelle would feel the exact same way,” Jackson said. “But I feel good when I think of her watching over and protecting us, being with us until we’re all safe at home.”

Capt. Scott Southworth, the company commander, said he hopes Rachel chooses not to return to Iraq. She and Charity are currently on leave to be at home with their family in New Berlin. They have not said whether they will return.

“From my perspective as a commander, I hope they choose to stay home with their family. They need to stay home. They don’t need this.”

Southworth, a University of Wisconsin Law School graduate from Juneau County, said their choice is not whether they will continue their mission. He said the military depends on the families of soldiers, and that there are two missions — one for the 32nd to police Iraq, and the other to help heal the Witmers.

“We can do our mission,” he said. “No one else can do the mission with their family. If I could order them to stay home, I would.”

Medics who Charity Witmer served with crossed Baghdad to attend the ceremony, held poolside at a former resort of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

At the close of the ceremony, all the troops who had gathered stood in line to hug Jackson, Prohaska, Southworth and other close friends of Witmer.

Jackson said Witmer was “a friend to everyone,” someone who rarely asked for help and strove to improve herself.

“For some reason, I’m still waiting for her to come back, waiting for her to burst into our room with a huge smile on her face and maybe trip over something on the way in. … I miss her. I miss my Witmer.”

Witmer was buried Friday in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee.

— Associated Press

 Wis. Guard plans memorial to soldier killed in Iraq

MADISON, Wis. — A memorial is planned to honor the first woman in the history of the Wisconsin National Guard to die in combat.

Spc. Michelle Witmer, 20, from New Berlin, was killed in Iraq last April.

The auditorium at Guard headquarters will be dedicated to Witmer and a life-size bronze bust of her will be placed in the lobby, said Lt. Col. Tim Donovan, spokesman for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, on Wednesday.

A planning committee is to select a sculptor soon.

No government money is to be used. About $25,000 for the memorial is to be raised through contributions.

Witmer was a member of the 32nd Military Police Company when she was killed in an ambush in Baghdad. Her twin sister and another sister also were serving with the Guard in Iraq at the time.

— Associated Press


Statement by Maj. Gen. Albert H. Wilkening on the
death of Wisconsin Army National Guard Specialist Michelle Witmer

I am deeply saddened by the death of Specialist Michelle Witmer. This very special citizen-soldier served her nation with bravery, distinction and valor as a member of the 32nd Military Police Company of Milwaukee and Madison. My deepest sympathy goes to Michelle’s entire family and especially to her two sisters, both of them Wisconsin National Guard soldiers who were also serving on active duty in Iraq. I hope the Witmer family knows just how proud Wisconsin is of Michelle, how grateful we are for her service, and how saddened the entire Wisconsin National Guard family is for her tragic loss. I pledge to the Witmers all the support of the Wisconsin National Guard they may need during the difficult days and weeks ahead.

Specialist Michelle Witmer is a hero whose service to Wisconsin and to her nation will never be forgotten. She is the first Wisconsin National Guard soldier killed in action since the waning days of World War II, and she is the first female soldier killed in action in the 167-year history of the Wisconsin National Guard.

In tribute to Michelle Witmer I am ordering the flags at all Wisconsin National Guard armories, air bases and other facilities lowered to half-staff beginning Monday morning and continuing until after her funeral service.

On behalf of all 9,900 of Specialist Witmer’s fellow soldiers and airmen of Wisconsin’s National Guard, I salute this fallen hero and pray for the safe and speedy return of the 32nd Military Police Company, and the continued safety of all 400 soldiers and airmen of the Wisconsin National Guard who are still serving overseas in harm’s way.

— Major General Albert H. Wilkening

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