Ten years ago on the night of April 9, 2004, Spc. Michelle Witmer and her sister, Rachel headed out on a patrol through Baghdad. Members of different squads within the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company, Rachel’s vehicle turned one direction, and Michelle’s headed another.
Spc. Michelle Witmer, of New Berlin, Wis., manned the gunner’s seat in her vehicle. A short time later, the street erupted with small arms fire. A rocket-propelled grenade struck one of the patrol’s vehicles. Gunmen opened fire and a bullet struck Witmer ó killing her almost instantly.
Witmer became the first female in the history of the National Guard and the first Wisconsin National Guardsman in almost 60 years to be killed in combat.
Almost 10 years later, on April 6, 2014, the Witmer family, the 32nd Military Police Company and leadership from the County and City of Milwaukee gathered in front of the 32nd’s headquarters at the Richards Street Armory in Milwaukee to name a street in Spc. Witmer’s honor.
A sign reading “Honorary ó Michelle Witmer” now hangs below the sign for North Richards Street directly in front of the National Guard armory at the intersection of Richards Street and Fiebrantz Avenue.
“When the county executive approached me about this idea of re-naming the street, I said, I think that’s a fabulous idea, and every member of the common council wholeheartedly agreed as well,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said during a ceremony to unveil the new street marker. “Because we understand that it is important for us as citizens to never ever forget those who make the ultimate sacrifice. We cannot as a people, whether it’s what happened in Baghdad or in any other conflict overseas, forget those men and women who made that sacrifice on our behalf.”
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele agreed and urged citizens to take every opportunity to honor service and sacrifice.
“Michelle represented a lot of what’s great in this country ó a lot of what’s great in this state, and there is no more appropriate place to add another chapter to the recognition she gets and she deserves than right here on this street,” Abele said.
Lt. Col. Scott Southworth commanded the 32nd Military Police Company when the unit deployed to Iraq for 14 months in 2003-04. Then a captain, Southworth served alongside Witmer and guided the unit throughout a deployment that saw the unit suffer 23 wounded and the loss of Witmer. The 23 wounded were the most for a Wisconsin National Guard unit since World War II.
“When we talk about Iraq and our service there, the question that we have to ask is, ‘Did we make a difference?'” Southworth said during the renaming ceremony. “Did Michelle’s service make a difference, not just from a foreign policy perspective, but to real people? Did we accomplish our mission of changing the hearts and minds and lives of people here in the United States and in Iraq? And the answer is yes.”
Joining Southworth at the ceremony was Anwar Sallumi, who served as a translator for the unit on its deployment. When the insurgency in Iraq learned that Sallumi had worked as a translator for the American military, they targeted him and his family, forcing him to flee from town to town in Iraq and eventually to Jordan and ultimately to the United States where he became a U.S. citizen in February.
“Michelle made a difference to them,” Southworth said of Sallumi and his wife Nagham and their children Siraj and Sena, who also attended the ceremony.
Southworth also pointed to his own family. During the unit’s deployment, Witmer and other members of the 32nd volunteered their limited free time at the Mother Theresa Orphanage in downtown Baghdad.
“It was full of special needs kids,” Southworth said. “She didn’t like it. She loved it. She loved the children, and they loved seeing her. One of those orphans, named Ala’a Eddeen, knew her. She knew him. After the war, we were able to get Ala’a Eddeen to the United States. I was able to adopt him as my son.”
“Michelle made a difference to him,” he continued. “In fact, she made a difference to the millions of people like Anwar, Nagham, Siraj, and Sena, and Ala’a Eddeen and all of us that were in that country to help the people of Iraq be free from tyranny.”
It was clear that Witmer touched the lives of nearly everyone with whom she came in contact.
“There’s a great picture of Michelle in Iraq surrounded by some young Iraqi boys who referred to her as simply ‘their Michelle,'” said Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general. “It’s been 10 years for those young men too. No longer boys ó young men. And we all hope that through their contact with Michelle and others in her unit, that they’ll make a different path for their country ñ not our way, their way.
“And lastly, who knows what impact Spc. Witmer had on the young girls in Iraq, in a part of the world where women are often second-class citizens ó to see a young American woman wearing the uniform of an American Soldier and standing side-by-side the men and serving in a frontline Army unit. Who knows what seeds will germinate as they grow to be mothers and raise their children and demand greater accountability from their own country for the young women of Iraq.”
Witmer’s parents John and Lori Witmer said their daughter should be remembered not only for her service and sacrifice, but for what she represented ó a symbol of a new age where female Soldiers are respected in the same way as their male brethren in arms.
“Öan age where they will be fully respected as competent, capable Soldiers and fully honor them for fighting and dying for this country,” John Witmer said.
Reading an excerpt from John Witmer’s book, “Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers,” Lori Witmer said, “Remember a young woman who could find something to be thankful for even in a war zone. Remember a young woman who brought comfort, not only to her fellow Soldiers but to the people of Iraq. Remember a young woman who embodied both the strength of the Soldier and the heart of an angel.”
Having a street renamed in her honor is a fitting tribute, Southworth said, but Witmer would not have wanted the attention.
“What she would have wanted is for people to be inspired to make a difference here in Wisconsin, in their communities to somebody who’s in need,” he said. “That’s her legacy, and that’s how we truly honor her.”
In 2005, the Wisconsin National Guard dedicated “Witmer Hall” at its Joint Force Headquarters in Madison, Wis., in her honor. The city of New Berlin also dedicated “Michelle Witmer Memorial Drive” and a troop medical clinic in Iraq bore her name as well.