Mike Mitchell almost wasn't able to defend his seine boat championship on Sunday.
Mitchell, a 23-year-old Gloucester native and member of the 2009 senior seine boat champions Kaos, has been stationed in Afghanistan with the United States Army National Guard since late March. He was unsure if he would get the leave he requested, which not coincidentally came on St. Peter's Fiesta weekend.
While Mitchell prepared himself as if he was not going to be able to make the 22-hour plane ride from Kabul to Boston, he received some good news in February as the leave he requested came through while he was in the middle of a two-month training course. He will return to Afghanistan at the end of next week. His deployment finishes up at the end of the year.
The first thing Mitchell did was call up good friend and fellow crew member Tony Testaverde to tell him the news.
"I was fired up," Mitchell said. "At one point I didn't think I was going to be able to come home this week and I prepared myself for it. I am just happy that we get to defend our title with the same guys who won it last year."
The current United States Army National Guard specialist enlisted immediately after he graduated high school in 2005.
"That was the first Fiesta I ever missed," Mitchell said.
From there he joined the National Guard and has served one weekend a month in Danvers with an artillery unit for the last five years while at the same time attending Bridgewater State College. He was deployed on Jan. 3 of this year and landed in Afghanistan on March 28.
In Kabul, Mitchell serves under the Alpha Battery 101st Field Artillery Unit and the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. His brigade is part of the reconstruction process in Kabul as they mentor the Afghan National Police.
While Kabul is a coalition stronghold, Mitchell and his unit still have to worry about road side bombs and suicide bombers. His brigade travels 90 minutes by convoy from Souther Kabul to their base in the heart of the city, which is in the process of becoming more Westernized.
"Our goal is to mentor the police in Kabul and work our way out," Mitchell said. "Eventually mentoring the police throughout the country."
Mitchell isn't the only Gloucester native serving time in Kabul as fellow residents Tom Tognazzi, Ray Burns, Wellington Machado and Doug Hurst all serve in Mitchell's brigade. According to Mitchell, a few of his colleagues asked for the same leave but Mitchell was granted it because leaves are granted backwards in rank.
"It's nice having a few other Gloucester guys there," Mitchell said. "It makes me feel like I'm not as far away from home."
For this week at least, Mitchell can shift his focus from training police to defending his seine boat title. Kaos won a nip and tuck race against then two-time defending champion Seize the Moment last year and are hoping for more of the same this year.
Seize the Moment is coming back with a re-tooled squad this year and Paul Giacalone's Crew is always a threat to take the title, but the championship goes through Kaos.
"We're the team to beat," Mitchell said. "It's always tough to defend your title but we have a strong and focused team."
Mitchell is just happy he got to come home and spend Fiesta with his friends and family.
"It's crazy," Mitchell said. "The only thing that could make this next two weeks any better would be another championship."