Nation

Rescue operation aims to save a wounded warrior

James Blake Miller was in a world of pain, and I figured I should be by his side.

A veterans' treatment program in West Haven, Conn. -- arguably the best in the nation -- offered hope. Moe Armstrong, a pioneer in vet-to-vet counseling, had heard of the Marlboro Marine's troubles and sent him feelers about coming for a visit. Despite my reservations about getting too involved, I had flown from Los Angeles to Kentucky to help Miller grab this lifeline. I coaxed him into my rental car and we headed north.

I questioned myself. Was this the right thing to do? For Miller, yes. But for me? What awaited us at the end of this journey? I caught Miller's eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, droopy and lifeless. He hadn't slept well, and a long road led from his home in the Appalachian coal country to New England.

I had taken a photo of Miller for the Los Angeles Times during the battle of Fallouja in November 2004. He was leaning against a wall, a cigarette dangling from his lips. To my surprise, the image became iconic, capturing a sense of the front line in a young Marine's face. It appeared in dozens of newspapers and on TV broadcasts, giving Miller a moment of fame.

Back home, he had struggled to put Iraq behind him. He was medically discharged from the Marines, suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder. He suffered flashbacks, drank heavily and retreated into a shell.

We had stayed in touch, casually at first. Then something deeper had developed between us. I was one of the few people who could reach him, who understood what he had been through.

I'd flown east in June 2006 after Miller's wife called me, asking for help. During the long drive to Connecticut, it began to sink in that despite our 25-year age difference, Miller and I had a lot in common. We both had religious upbringings. We both went to public schools and ran with reckless crowds. We'd both found acceptance through sports.

Like Miller, I'd faced obstacles growing up. Despite my good grades, my high school counselor saw only a Filipino immigrant in homogeneous Olympia, Wash., and lumped me in with the underachievers. Instead of college catalogs, she offered me Army recruitment brochures.

The military would be better than "setting chokers," she said, referring to the equipment used to harvest clear-cut timber off steep mountainsides. It's dangerous work -- like mining coal in Kentucky.

As dusk descended, Miller and I drove on, talking about movies, music, motorcycles and cars. We talked about Iraq, where our lives had intersected.

On assignment for The Times, I was embedded with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Miller was a radioman with the unit.

He recalled intense training as the Marines prepared to enter Fallouja. There was bluster, bravado. Some of the men talked about notching "kills."

On the eve of battle, they became reflective and subdued as they wrote last goodbyes. Their letters home basically said: If you get this, I am dead.

Miller was haunted by the brutality of the fight.

I remembered that, of course, but my mind had also stored a consoling image, one of transcendent serenity.

I told Miller about it as we drove north. The morning sun was streaming gloriously through the broken windows of the shattered Khulafah Rashid mosque in Fallouja, where Marines had taken refuge during the battle. The light splashed over deep red prayer rugs where Marines sprawled in fitful sleep, their packs serving as pillows, their dusty boots laced tight.

Rubble littered the floor, and dust floated up through shafts of light. Copies of the Koran lay open amid shards of glass. I recalled leaning against a towering pillar in the vast space, breathing the tranquillity.

Miller talked about killing the enemy.

"To try to live with that . . . how do you justify it, regardless of what your causes are or what their causes are?" he said.

"To see somebody in your sights and to pull that trigger, it's almost like you're with them, seeing their life flash before their eyes as well as taking it. It's an insane connection that you make with that person at that point."

We talked about the dissonance we felt. We existed in our own postwar world, forever changed by the experience. Meanwhile, everyone around us seemed distracted by trivialities -- the price of gas, a sex scandal in Washington, a paparazzi photo of Britney Spears without panties.

Fueled by coffee and Marlboros, we crossed six state lines and covered 870 miles. At dawn we arrived in West Haven. It was pouring rain.

We checked into a motel pushed up against the freeway, and Miller quickly nodded off. A CNN special report about the war glowed on TV.

I couldn't sleep. A journalist wasn't supposed to get personally involved with his subjects. But I felt somehow responsible for Miller. Over and over, I thought: It will be my fault if something bad happens to him.

"You know you're going to be OK, right?" Laurie Harkness, who runs Errera Community Care Center for veterans, said when she met Miller the next day.

"Maybe you did some horrible things in Iraq. But war is terrible," she said. "You do what you have to in order to survive. And you survived. That's good news, right?"

Miller nodded. He agreed to check in to the program. Veterans benefits would cover the cost of treatment. Miller would pay $300 a month for room and board.

Between the intense counseling offered by Harkness and peer support from Moe Armstrong's group, Vet to Vet, it seemed Miller would finally get the help he needed. But shortly after signing in, he insisted on returning to Kentucky to get his motorcycle. Harkness reluctantly issued a weekend pass. I crossed my fingers.

Worried that I was in over my head, I asked Armstrong to accompany us as we covered the same highways we had traversed just days before. I figured that if Armstrong was there to offer professional counseling, I could retreat into my role as journalist. Besides, my patience was wearing thin. Another 1,700 miles -- for a motorcycle!

All the way back to Connecticut, I kept my eyes on the rearview mirror, constantly checking to make sure Miller hadn't pulled a U-turn. On the program. On himself. On me.

Over the next month, I stayed by Miller's side as he began to reveal the things that weighed so heavily on his mind. At his request, I sat in on most of his therapy sessions. He said my presence put him at ease, but I never put down my camera, never stopped documenting the story.

Miller told Harkness how empty and confused he had felt when combat ended. How he had placed the barrel of an M-16 assault rifle in his mouth on the outskirts of Fallouja one day, taken a deep breath and reached for the trigger.

"What made me so special that I deserved to stay here and my buddies didn't?" Miller asked, speaking of friends who had died. "At one point, I was almost mad at them. How could my buddies leave me like that? We came together. We were supposed to leave together. I don't know how you can disconnect that feeling."

He told us about an event that haunted him. From an observation post in Fallouja, he had seen a head pop up amid the wreckage of several cars. It was a free-fire zone. He squinted into his rifle scope, saw a patch of dark curly hair and squeezed the trigger.

Later, Marines advanced on the scene and found a dead boy, 6 or 7 years old, his curly hair mottled by bits of brain and blood.

There was more, he said -- terrible things he couldn't divulge. Not now. Maybe never.

"To kill the snake, we had to cut off its head," was all he would say.

On July 10, 2006, Miller turned 22. He seemed to be getting the help he needed.

I had been away from my wife and three children for a month. It was time to go home to Los Angeles.

The night before my departure, I joined Miller and some other vets for a birthday dinner. We broke it up about 10 p.m. I told Miller to call me day or night if he needed help. I encouraged him to hang tough.

"You stuck your neck out for me to keep mine here," he said. "And I feel with everything in me that you have saved my life. I thank you for that."

Relief washed over me. It was like shedding a rucksack of rocks. I got into my car as he started up his motorcycle. A deep, loud rumble ripped the night.

We traveled together for a time. He slowed and waved as I turned in to my hotel. I watched him roar into the darkness.

Over the next several weeks, Harkness took a special interest in Miller's recovery. She told him that, in time, he might even enroll at Yale University through a special admissions process.

Miller began to realize that guilt and fear were ruining him. It's what prompted the rush to marry his high school sweetheart, Jessica Holbrooks, after he got home from Iraq, even though he knew deep down he wasn't ready. Now he understood that even Jessica couldn't make him feel safe or accepted. She couldn't make him stop scanning the darkness for the enemy beyond. It's what made him drink all night, finding sleep in the arms of exhaustion.

Still, he didn't say much in group therapy, preferring to stay in a shell. He commonly skipped the daily meetings and instead spent hours on the phone with Jessica. He put off sessions of "cognitive behavioral therapy," which would require him to discuss his troubling memories.

"It's all good," he told me over the phone. He said he was gaining clarity. He borrowed a guitar and strummed all day. He expressed optimism.

But soon Miller began talking about going home.

Once again, I made the cross-country trip. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and tell him not to blow an excellent opportunity to put his life back together. A chance to go to Yale? I would jump at that myself.

But Miller wasn't receptive. He had scuffled with some local motorcycle toughs and felt threatened. He missed the mountains. He wanted to go home. Period.

Disappointing all who had tried to help him, he dropped out just two months into a program that was supposed to last six months to a year.

We left Connecticut in the middle of the night. I followed in my rental car as he rode his motorcycle for 18 hours through a sweltering summer day to be reunited with Jessica.

It was August 2006. The couple hoped to get a fresh start in Princeton, W.Va., which offered a veterans center, the mountains Miller loved, and the privacy so lacking in his hometown.

In the gloaming, they held each other tight. They thought maybe they could work things out.

They shopped for used furniture and found an apartment that was light and airy, with a porch for barbecues.

"I'm just in a tizzy," said Jessica. "I missed him so."

But Armstrong, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, was worried. He had had high hopes that he could help Miller and that Miller could help him reach a younger generation of combat veterans.

"Blake Miller is a flipped-out, 21-year-old former Marine who was involved in a major battle," Armstrong said. "He's been through a lot, seen a lot. I can't endorse the quick fix. It's a common pattern that vets are in and out of therapy for years."

Miller began seeing psychologist and retired Marine Ernie Barringer at the veterans center in Princeton. Miller knew I was disappointed in him for leaving the Connecticut program. He and Jessica went out of their way to reassure me everything would be OK.

They drove me to the secluded mountaintop outside Pikeville, Ky., to show me the spot where Miller had asked Jessica to be his girl, just days before he shipped out to Iraq. She promised to be there when he returned.

They laughed, embarrassed by the story. Miller sipped root beer and Jessica Nehi orange soda. Insects hummed in the dark.

Under a splash of stars, the moon rose. A gentle breeze rippled the woods. One could almost imagine Fallouja never happened.

By mid-October 2006, Miller had again slipped into depression. Memories flooded back as the second anniversary of the Fallouja battle approached. As the death toll mounted in Iraq, he worried about his buddies who had again deployed to the Middle East.

Marriage counseling proved difficult; sessions often ended in stony silence. Vaguely familiar facial features reappeared in Miller's dreams: a mole, thick beards and curly black hair. Then, body parts exploding.

Jessica became frustrated. They didn't talk. They stopped having sex. One night later that month, Miller called me, sounding depressed. I offered to come see him. By the time I arrived, Jessica had moved out.

They next met at a law office in Pikeville. The smoke from Miller's cigarette hung thick in the air. The couple sat across a wide table and agreed to proceed with a divorce.

So much for happy endings, I thought, recalling their wedding.

As Miller and I drove back to West Virginia, news crackled over the radio. The Democrats had routed the GOP in the midterm congressional election. Public sentiment about Iraq had soured, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the architect of the war, was resigning.

Miller had mixed feelings. "That's good news, I guess," he said. "But it should've happened a long time ago. Everybody that's dead now. I mean, what's the point?"

It was Nov. 9, 2006 -- two years after I took the famous picture of Miller and a year after he left the Marines.

In his empty apartment, Miller took his wedding picture from the wall and replaced it with a Meritorious Mast, a certificate detailing his valor in combat. He drank beer for comrades living and lost.

He spoke the names of the dead: Brown, Gavriel, Holmes, Ziolkowski.

"I didn't cry then, and I won't now," Miller said. "I just can't."

Over the next 10 days, we awoke late and drove aimlessly in the countryside. He attended meetings at the vet center. I took more pictures.

Winter was upon the mountains. Miller blamed his melancholy on the season.

Within weeks, Miller moved back to Kentucky and got an apprenticeship at a custom motorcycle shop, working up to 14 hours a day.

"This makes me feel like I still have some purpose in life," he said. "Fixing things. Making them right."

The shop's owner presided over the local chapter of the Highwaymen, a Detroit-based motorcycle club under constant scrutiny by law enforcement.

Miller acknowledged that the Highwaymen were into "serious business" but said he joined the club for the camaraderie. The uniforms and codes of conduct reminded him of the Marines.

I worried about this new affiliation. After joining, Miller never went out without his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, and he kept a shotgun in his truck. To me, his new friends seemed overly interested in his combat "kills." One biker, a Vietnam veteran also plagued by PTSD, promised me he'd get Miller to join the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"We'll connect veteran to veteran," the biker told me, his breath tinged with moonshine.

Miller now sees Jessica a couple of times a month. They have not completed their divorce but remain separated.

"I see him on his good days," Jessica said, "and everything is wonderful. We actually have conversations." But then weeks pass without sight of him.

"He has to get stable," she said. "If he was better, we'd be together all the time."

Miller lives in a refurbished trailer behind his father's house. Two televisions provide constant background chatter. The refrigerator is bare. A hound named Mudbone spends most days tied in the yard.

Miller is estranged from his mother. He talks with his father, Jimmy Miller, 43, about everything except Iraq.

"What am I going to say? 'Son, I know what you've been through'? 'I know what you're going through now'?" the father said. "Well, the truth is I don't. Maybe it's just better that we leave it alone."

Miller's brother Todd, a 21-year-old diesel mechanic, doesn't pretend to understand.

"I'm glad I didn't join the Marines," Todd said one day. "I got a nice house, a wife and twin baby daughters, and I drive a Durango that's used but damn near new. You're divorced, drive a beat-up pickup and live in a trailer."

On top of that, Todd told his brother, your head is screwed up.

The months go by. One disability check comes, and then the next -- about $2,500 a month. Miller sees Barringer, the psychologist, but only occasionally.

"Sometimes you just have to look at the culture of small-town eastern Kentucky," Barringer said. "Blake graduated from high school and had no future. So he joined the Marines, and now he's home and has a steady income. Things are good.

"But sometimes that's more of a negative than a positive," he added. "Look, every time you go out to that mailbox and get your disability check, it tells you you're sick."

It took a while to get to know Miller. But I've come to appreciate his intelligence, generosity and dignity. He is a talented musician and skilled mechanic. I try to relate to him as a brother, even though I'm older than his father.

He has helped me sort through the craziness of Fallouja. I can't stop the war, but Miller has given me a chance to make a difference -- by helping him. And maybe myself.

Often, I wonder if I've done enough. Can I let go now? Can I ever let go?

The experts tell me I may be in it for the long haul.

Armstrong says Miller is "playing out his symptoms on cue."

"He's just keeping his head above water," he said. "He can't afford any downtime because it allows him to think."

Harkness holds out hope that Miller will eventually seek intensive therapy of the kind she offered.

"He won't come in for help because a part of him is very macho," she said. "He really comes across as the Marlboro Man. My fear is that at some point, it's all going to come crashing down.

To me, she said: "You are a constant object for Blake. You are the only person to follow him from the war zone to back home in America. You have a bond. He would be much lonelier and lost without you."

Some experts estimate that 30% of the troops who have seen combat in Iraq will suffer from PTSD.

As that thought lingers in my head, I remind myself that the sweetest victory is survival. The rest of life is a glittering gift, tempered in the forge of Fallouja.

Sometimes in the night, I hear a grenade launcher belching rounds. Or maybe it's just Miller gunning his Harley. He's roaring over Foggy Mountain, the wind blowing by, cleansing his thoughts.

Blake, son, I know it sounds crazy, but my mind always takes me back to that distant rooftop in Fallouja, where I snapped your picture. I think of that sunrise, bright and warm, and how lucky we were to see it.

luis.sinco@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Comments
Loading