Marlboro Marine
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Part One: Battles After the War

This is the photo that made Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller -- the “Marlboro Marine” --famous. This photo also changed my life. I’m Luis Sinco, a Los Angeles Times staff photographer, and I took it while embedded with his Marine unit in Fallouja. We had spent the previous night in a traffic circle, pinned down by enemy fire, and just before I snapped this photo, a tank had blasted an insurgent position next door to ours. Many people looked at the photo and saw a heroic figure; I saw, in his eyes, a man at the point of breaking. It was how I felt, too. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller’s memories of fighting in Fallouja are as clear as yesterday. The flashbacks or fear, the exhilaration and disbelief never go away; it was an all-absorbing struggle to survive. You can see Blake here behind the railing, in the center toward the back. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Amid the rubble of Fallouja, I photographed two dead insurgents, their arms above their heads and legs apart. They looked like boys sprawled on the beach. A Marine stripped them of their munitions. The dead lined our path through a city in ruins. It was impossible not to witness the carnage. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller recalls killing the enemy. “To see a man in your sights and to pull the trigger, it’s like watching his life flash before his eyes as well as taking it. It’s an insane connection you make with that person at that point,” he says. Here he is in Fallouja, a few days after the “Marlboro Marine” photo was taken. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller trains for battle in the days before the assault on Fallouja. I was embedded with his Marine unit during the fierce battle, but I never really got to know him. Back home in the U.S., our lives intertwined. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Here I am — Luis Sinco, a Los Angeles Times staff photographer — in Fallouja during the Marines’ assault. (Rob Shuford / For the Times)
Above the din of the battle, I heard what everybody was thinking: This is the end. In the tight spaces we were scared mindless. Reality became existential. Actuality trumped possibility. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
As the fighting raged, Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, right, made a special visit to the front lines to shake the hand of Miller -- the “Marlboro Marine.” Natonski told Miller that Americans had “connected” with the photo, and he offered to get the lance corporal out of Iraq and back home as quickly as possible. Miller declined; he stayed, witnessing further the horror of combat. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Back home in Kentucky, Miller’s then-fiancee, Jessica, immediately recognized the face of the “Marlboro Marine.” And she knew that Miller would be different when he came home. “There’s a word for it around here,” she says. “It’s called ‘vets.’ ” (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller had hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement. But his abrupt discharge from the Marines, because of a stress disorder, killed that dream. No one would trust him with a weapon. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller and his wife settled into a sparsely furnished second-story apartment. Four small windows afforded little daylight. The TV was always on. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller’s stories about Iraq unnerved his young bride. He sensed it, too, so he started talking less. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Blake Miller and Jessica Holbrooks had been married in 2005 in a civil ceremony in Jacksonville, N.C., outside Camp Lejeune, but Jessica wanted a proper wedding. They got it a year later, with Miller in his Marine Corps dress uniform. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Blake and Jessica had a dream wedding at a country club that overlooked forests and strip mines. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
They received donations from around the country to pay for the wedding. Local businesses pitched in as well. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Instead of a honeymoon, the young couple traveled to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the National Mental Health Assn. The group wanted to honor Miller for going public about his post-traumatic stress disorder. Its leaders also wanted him to share his experience with lawmakers. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Outside the Capitol in Washington. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
The night before he was to tour the capital, Miller went to a bar. When the bartender asked why I was taking photos, I explained that he was the “Marlboro Marine.” From that point on, the booze flowed freely. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
In the middle of an alcohol-induced blackout in Washington, D.C., Miller supports himself on a parking meter. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Miller had a horrible hangover when he met with lawmakers. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
After picking up an award from the National Mental Health Assn., Miller took a whirlwind tour past the White House and Lincoln Memorial. But his mind was elsewhere. “Let’s get drunk,” he said. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Shortly after returning home to Pikeville, Ky., from Washington, Blake’s mood worsened. Then he disappeared. Jessica found him in a car with another woman. Jessica peppered him with questions; he seemed sober and sullen. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Blake filed for divorce. It wasn’t even two weeks since they had renewed their vows. (Luis Sinco / LAT)
Blake and Jessica’s crumbling marriage was front-page news in his town, and Blake told me that he had come close to committing suicide the night before. I didn’t want to get involved. But I had taken the picture that made him famous. I felt responsible. (Luis Sinco / LAT)