By Michael H. ODonnell Idaho State Journal
POCATELLO, Idaho — On a cold, damp afternoon Marlene Hummel saw the lean stranger with white hair sitting in a wheelchair as she pulled into the parking lot of Albertson’s grocery store.
Hummel didn’t know he was a Vietnam-era Army veteran, a former professional baseball player, and that he had no place safe to stay. She just knew he looked lost and alone.
Tommy Mitchell had come to Pocatello last winter and had been staying with another Vietnam-era era veteran in an apartment until he made a poor decision and became the victim of a citizenship scam that left his credit cards maxed out and his meager funding exhausted.
Before coming to Pocatello, Mitchell had undergone emergency surgery on his spine in Twin Falls. A damaged nervous system had already made walking and performing tasks difficult, but the surgery had made a wheelchair his primary mode of getting around. He was making due with Social Security disability payments and surviving until he became involved with a “woman from Sweden” via the Internet. For months they exchanged text messages and finally she told Mitchell she would fly to Pocatello so they could begin a life together.
For a week, this woman stayed in a Pocatello motel pestering Mitchell to sign her citizenship sponsorship papers. As soon as he did, she disappeared and he discovered his credit cards were maxed out and a cash reserve he had was gone.
“I just didn’t see it coming,” Mitchell said.
Without money, Mitchell accepted an invitation to crash at a home of a friend’s younger relative and found himself in “a dangerous situation.”
Fearing for his safety after a couple of days there, Mitchell got into his wheelchair and made his way over the Benton Street overpass to Albertsons. He said he had no idea where he was going from there.
“That’s when I met Marlene,” he said. “We just started talking and I got a little teary-eyed. She was so nice and wanted to help.”
Hummel said her initial attempts to help Mitchell with a $5 bill were resisted, but she persisted and he eventually accepted the money and went inside the store. When she finished her shopping, Mitchell was back outside sitting in his wheelchair.
The 79-year-old Pocatello resident couldn’t walk away.
“I just made a connection there and just knew this was something that needed to be done,” Hummel said. “I just felt I had to help this person.”
She secured his cellphone number and male shopper stopped and offered to give Mitchell a ride back to the house where he had been sleeping on the sofa. With darkness falling, Mitchell accepted the ride. Hummel went home with a heavy heart because Mitchell had told her the place where he was staying temporarily was dangerous.
Hummel got on the phone the next morning to find help. She knew that Mitchell had served in the Army from 1968-71 so she tried to find vet services. Her first call was to a veterinarian. She felt embarrassed but persisted and reached the Pocatello Veterans Home, which put her in touch with Rick Piersol, a state veteran’s service officer for the Idaho Division of Veteran Advocacy.
“By 2:30 Rick had it all wrapped up,” Hummel said. “He was a sweetheart.”
Piersol reached out to the Military Affairs Committee, American Legion Auxiliary, VFW and Vietnam Vets organizations. He also used the social media to alert people about Mitchell’s predicament. By nightfall, Piersol had personally transported Mitchell to a safe room at the Thunderbird Motel. The combined effort of everyone involved and cash donations allowed Piersol to secure a shuttle to Salt Lake City and a train ticket back to St. Louis for Mitchell.
“I just took care of him,” Piersol said. “That’s what we do. It’s part of our brotherhood.”
Safe in his motel room Wednesday, Mitchell explained his life in and out of the military. A high school athlete with extra skill in baseball, Mitchell joined the Army right after high school graduation. Soon he found himself on the All-Army baseball team as a pitcher and began touring the country and Europe playing ball at different military bases. They even played in South Africa.
In 1969 Mitchell and his team made a trip to Vietnam for nine days where they played games for the troops. He said he felt very fortunate he wasn’t among those in combat there.
After leaving the service, Mitchell was able to join the St. Louis Cardinals baseball organization where he was a standout during the winter season games.
“I was throwing 100 miles an hour,” Mitchell said.
But Mitchell would never make the big leagues. He said the pitching roster at the time included Bob Gibson, Rick Wise and Reggie Cleveland.
“I wasn’t going to break into that starting lineup,” Mitchell said.
He played in the minors for a while and then began a career in the restaurant business in New York City. He became the head waiter at restaurants like Maxwell’s Plum and the Russian Tea Room.
“That place was remarkable,” Mitchell said about the Tea Room. Located next to Carnegie Hall, the restaurant drew celebrities like Alan Alda, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Taylor.
After leaving New York City, Mitchell had worked at the Sahara in Las Vegas and Dominic’s in St. Louis.
“I’ve had a great career, but my health really started going downhill,” Mitchell said.
Sitting in his motel room in Pocatello, Mitchell said he felt blessed that so many people had come to his aid in the Gate City and he was anxious to go back home and link up with a friend he had known since childhood.
“I’m amazed at the sequence of events,” Mitchell said. “I’m knocked out by it.”
Hummel gives credit to Piersol and the veterans groups.
“There’s a lot of wonderful people here,” Hummel said.