March 1, 2007
by Emily Meyer
It is not uncommon for young Newark, Ohio, natives to grow up as Buckeye fans. Newark is just a quick 40-minute drive from Columbus, Ohio, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and current OSU cheerleader Ronald Mitchell was one of those youngsters bleeding with Scarlet and Gray pride. He never dreamed of being a cheerleader and never thought about being a photographer before enlisting in the U.S. Army, yet the 29-year-old has accepted each challenge with a smile. And Mitchell's story is not the average tale of a high school graduate.
After one year at Denison University, Mitchell joined the Army and began basic training in Pensacola, Fla., as a combat photographer in the Signal Corp.
"Before I joined the Army, I had never touched a camera in my life," Mitchell said. "Part of the enlistment process is your training so I spent a year in Pensacola, Fla., learning photography and videography. During that time, I learned how to edit and document photos."
Little did Mitchell, known as 'Mitch' to his Army pals, know how far his newly cultivated skills would take him. Stationed in Maryland, he was a member of the only combat camera unit in the Army. As a result, Mitchell was sent to photograph and document the Army's work, a task that would take him to every continent except Australia and Antarctica and 30 different countries.
"In the Signal Corp, we document everything within the Army," Mitchell said. "A lot of the time when you see combat footage on the news it comes from Army photographers or videographers. A lot of places we go it is too dangerous to take civilian media, so we are the ones that actually capture everything."
From Italy to Afghanistan, Mitchell was front and center in the battlefield.
"I've been in some wild places," Mitchell said. "When you're out there you don't realize how dangerous the situation is. You don't realize what's really going on because you are worried about doing your job and taking the picture. When you come back to your base and you look at the photos you took you think to yourself, 'I could have been killed today.'"
The Army staff sergeant credits his ability to withstand the fire to the relentless physical and mental training the corps completes before entering the field.
"There were a lot of times when I didn't know what was going on so I had to rely on my reactions," Mitchell said. "That is why we are always training in the Army. We train to make ourselves better and because of it we are able to just react. For example, we slept in weather where it was 10 degrees below zero in sleeping bags and we were freezing, but when you get somewhere and you knew you have done it before, you know you can make it."
His strength of will and passion to be in the center of the action made him a perfect match for the Ohio State cheerleading squad. After serving in the Army for eight years, Mitchell is now attending Ohio State to finish his college degree in education. Mitchell earned leave from active duty and received a Purple Heart after suffering from a bullet wound in the leg and grenade shrapnel in his eye. Upon returning, he joined the Ohio National Guard. By chance, Mitchell met Brutus Buckeye Andrew Peters in ROTC class and the two became friends. One thing led to the other, and Mitchell found himself a squad member again, but this time on the OSU cheerleading team.
"I had never thought about being a cheerleader," Mitchell said. "When we were in Afghanistan, part of the USO (United Service Organization) show was the Baltimore Raven cheerleaders. I ended up meeting and becoming friends with some of them, so we e-mailed the whole time I was away. When I came home to the U.S., we met up and I told them I was going to college and they told me I should try out. I really didn't think of it, until I was in my ROTC class and met Andrew Peters."
Although college life may seem like a walk in the park compared to Army life, Mitchell insists it is just a different definition of the word hard.
"College isn't a break," Mitchell said. "Now I'm using my brain in a different way and I am just as busy physically with cheerleading so my body still hurts. I am majoring in education because I want to be a teacher when the Army is all said and done. Then, hopefully, I will have a classroom full of kids and raise little Mr. Mitchells."
Besides work in the classroom, Mitchell also has to delegate his time between practice and cheering at games. In addition, he is an instructor at the Sergeants Academy headquartered at Rickenbacker International Airport. So far, the training requirements between the Army and OSU cheerleading are similar in some aspects. For example, Mitchell spends most of his time throwing and catching people, so his body never recovers from the pounding. Whereas in Army training, he carries the same weight but the strain is more continuous because he carries it for up to 12 hours compared to two hour cheerleading practices.
Judy Bunting, Ohio State cheerleading head coach, considers Mitchell's age and experience adds strength to the team.
"Since Mitch is a little older than most undergrad college students and because of his experiences in the military, he brings maturity to the squad," Bunting said. "He appreciates the experiences he has through OSU cheerleading. He is very respectful and hardworking."
The new test college has presented to the 29-year-old cheerleader also fulfills a childhood fantasy.
"I have always been a Buckeye fan since I was a little kid," Mitchell said. "As kids we would watch it on television and wish we were there. Now I am and I have the best seat in the house."
Mitchell hasn't forgotten the skills he learned in the Army either. On the side, the Army photographer does freelance work taking photos of every occasion from birthdays to weddings.
"In my spare time I do sports photography and weddings," Mitchell said. "When you are actually getting paid for it, especially weddings, it's tough because you only have one chance to get the shot. Sports photography is fun because you have a good idea of what's coming and you know there is going to be another snap every down in a football game. You know you have another chance to get a good shot, but at a wedding you get one shot and that is it, so you can't mess it up."
Mitchell faces every new challenge with the same winning resolve that has pioneered him through basic training camp, live combat and now college.