TINLEY PARK, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Family, friends and supporters of fallen Army Spc. Henry “Mitch” Mayfield Jr. gathered Tuesday at Hazel Crest Village Hall to honor the local soldier who was killed in a Jan. 5 attack at an airfield in Kenya.
The village distributed yellow ribbons to hundreds of attendees with instructions to wrap them around trees throughout the community to commemorate Mayfield’s sacrifice.
“This day will always be Henry Mayfield Jr. Day in the village of Hazel Crest,” Mayor Vernard Alsberry said of Jan. 14.
He said the yellow ribbons, which historically have represented support for the homecoming of military troops, were intended as a “welcome home” gesture for Mayfield Jr., whose remains are expected to arrive Wednesday at O’Hare International Airport.
The approximately 5,000 ribbons will cloak the trees that line Mayfield Jr.’s block and a number of major village thoroughfares.
Prairie-Hills Elementary School District 144 and Bremen High School District 228, which both observed a moment of silence for Mayfield Jr. on Tuesday morning, are also asking stakeholders to tie ribbons to trees within the districts’ boundaries, Alsberry said.
“It’s a sad day,” the mayor, an Air Force veteran, said. “Freedom isn’t free. Every time something like this happens, it makes us recognize that we have young men and young women out there sacrificing their lives for the freedom that we enjoy every day.”
Alsberry said he and Mayfield Jr.’s family were still mostly in the dark about the circumstances of the 23-year-old’s death earlier this month.
Al-Shabab, an Islamic extremist group based in Somalia, has claimed responsibility for the assault at Manda Bay Airfield in southeastern Kenya that killed Mayfield Jr. and two American defense contractors.
Anthony Mayfield, the soldier’s uncle, said the circumstances didn’t much matter to him. His nephew, a role model for his younger brothers and cousins, was gone.
“He was just an all around great kid,” said Anthony Mayfield, one of about 40 of the young soldier’s family members on hand for Tuesday’s memorial.
“He was all about his family. Very family oriented. His family was everything to him. His little brothers, all his cousins, everybody. They were his heart.”
Anthony Mayfield said what stood out most to him about his nephew was the young man’s drive and motivation.
“He was motivated to do different,” Mayfield said. “He wanted to do something different and he wanted to see the world, and that’s what he was trying to do.”
A 2014 Hillcrest High School graduate who enjoyed playing sports and spending time with family, Mayfield Jr. joined the Army in August 2017 after struggling to afford college tuition, his father, Henry Mayfield Sr., said.
Mayfield Sr. declined to speak at Tuesday’s memorial, but told the Southtown previously that his son joined the Army after much thought and hoped his service would help put him on the path to a successful future.
“He couldn’t really afford college, so he figured that the Army would help him through that,” Mayfield Sr. said last week.
Mayfield Jr., who worked fueling and deicing planes at O’Hare airport before enlisting, served as an air traffic services mechanic with the 164th Theater Airfield Operations Group of the Army’s 1st Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment, Army officials said.
He had been stationed at Fort Rucker in Alabama prior to deploying to Kenya in October where he worked installing, maintaining and repairing heating and cooling systems, his father said.
Mayfield Sr. said his son remained in frequent contact with his family throughout his first Army deployment, and that they had spoken just two days before his death.
“He wasn’t scared, nervous, upset,” Mayfield Sr. said of his final conversation with his son. “He felt good.”
Mayfield Jr. once had talked of starting a trucking business after getting out of the service, but his father said that recently it seemed like a lengthy armed forces career was not out of the question.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, a former Army captain who saw combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom, said the state legislature planned to honor Mayfield Jr. with a proclamation later this month.
“The way things are going right now in our country, it’s a very dangerous time, and I’m proud that we have soldiers like Mitch, and his family who supported him, serving our country,” said Hastings, D-Tinley Park, who attended Tuesday’s memorial event in Hazel Crest.
“It’s unfortunate that we lost him, but I know he had a love for his country. His family reflects that. It’s just awesome seeing everybody here today.”
Hastings, who was among a handful of local and state elected officials at Tuesday’s event, said he’d thanked Mayfield Jr.’s family for allowing their son to serve and for his sacrifice to the country.
“Kids these days who serve in the military are a special breed,” Hastings said. “I think it takes a unique person to serve or want to serve in this time because you know what you’re getting yourself into. Before 2001, you didn’t know if you were going to war or not. It’s an open book now.”
Mayfield’s body is expected to arrive shortly after noon at O’Hare airport on Wednesday. There will be an escort/procession from O’Hare to Hazel Crest. The procession will pass Hillcrest High School, where students are expected outside.
A visitation will be held from noon to 8 p.m. Friday at Doty Nash Funeral Home, 8620 S. Stony Island Ave., Chicago.
A wake for Mayfield Jr. begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the House of Hope, 752 E. 114th St., in Chicago, followed by a Purple Heart Service at 10:30 a.m. and the funeral at 11 a.m. Burial will follow at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.
A fund to support the Mayfield family has been established at BankFinancial in Hazel Crest, the mayor said.