Two lives blurred together by a photo
The young marine lighted a cigarette and let it dangle. White smoke wafted around his helmet. His face was smeared with war paint. Blood trickled from his right ear and the bridge of his nose.
Momentarily deafened by cannon blasts, he didn’t know the shooting had stopped. He stared at the sunrise.
His expression caught my eye. To me, it said: terrified, exhausted and glad just to be alive. I recognized that look because that’s how I felt too.
I raised my camera and snapped a few shots.
With the click of a shutter, Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, a country boy from Kentucky, became an emblem of the war in Iraq. The resulting image would change two lives -- his and mine.
I was embedded with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, as it entered Fallouja, an insurgent stronghold in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, on Nov. 8, 2004. We encountered heavy fire almost immediately. We were pinned down all night at a traffic circle, where a 6-inch curb offered the only protection.
I hunkered down in the gutter that endless night, praying for daylight, trying hard to make myself small. A cold rain came down. I cursed the Marines’ illumination flares that wafted slowly earthward, making us wait an eternity for darkness to return.
At dawn, the gunfire and explosions subsided. A white phosphorus artillery round burst overhead, showering blazing-hot tendrils. We came across three insurgents lying in the street, two of them dead, their blood mixing with rainwater.
The third, a wiry Arab youth, tried to mouth a few words. All I could think was: “Buddy, you’re already dead.”
We rounded a corner and again came under heavy fire, forcing us to scramble for cover. I ran behind a Marine as we crossed the street, the bullets ricocheting at our feet.
Gunfire poured down, and it seemed incredible that no one was hit. A pair of tanks rumbled down the road to shield us. The Marines kicked open the door of a house, and we all piled in.
Miller and other Marines took positions on the rooftop; I set up my satellite phone to transmit photos. But as I worked downstairs in the kitchen, a deep rumble almost blew the room apart.
Two cannon rounds had slammed into a nearby house. Miller, the platoon’s radioman, had called in the tanks, pinpointed the targets and shouted “Fire!”
I ran to the roof and saw smoldering ruins across a large vacant lot. Beneath a heap of bricks, men lay dead or dying. I sat down and collected my wits. Miller propped himself against a wall and lighted his cigarette. I transmitted the picture that night. Power in Fallouja had been cut in advance of the assault, forcing me to be judicious with my batteries. I considered not even sending Miller’s picture, thinking my editors would prefer images of fierce combat.
The photo of Miller was the last of 11 that I sent that day.
On the second day of the battle, I called my wife by satellite phone to tell her I was OK. She told me my photo had ended up on the front page of more than 150 newspapers. Dan Rather had gushed over it on the evening news. Friends and family had called her to say they had seen the photo -- my photo.
Soon, my editors called and asked me to find the “Marlboro Marine” for a follow-up story. Who was this brave young hero? Women wanted to marry him. Mothers wanted to know whether he was their son.
I didn’t even know his name. Shell-shocked and exhausted, I had simply identified Miller as “A Marine” and clicked “send.”
I found Miller four days later in an auditorium after a dangerous dash across an open parade ground in the city’s civic center. Miller’s unit was taking a break, eating military rations.
Clean-shaven and without war paint, Miller, 20, looked much younger than the battle-stressed warrior in the picture -- young enough to be my son.
He was cooperative, but he was embarrassed about the photo’s impact back home.
Once our story identified him, the national fascination grew stronger. People shipped care packages, making sure Miller had more than enough smokes. President Bush sent cigars, candy and memorabilia from the White House.
Then Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, head of the 1st Marine Division, made a special trip to see the Marlboro Marine.
I was in the forward command center, which by then featured a large blowup of the photo. “You might want to see this,” an officer said, nudging me to follow.
To talk to Miller, Natonski had to weave between earthen berms, run through bombed-out buildings and make a mad sprint across a wide street to avoid sniper fire before diving into a shattered storefront.
“Miller, get your ass up here,” a first sergeant barked on the radio.
Miller had no idea what was going on as he ran through the rubble. He snapped to attention when he saw the general.
Natonski shook Miller’s hand. Americans had “connected” with his photo, the general said, and nobody wanted to see him wounded or dead.
“We can have you home tomorrow,” he said.
Miller hesitated, then shook his head. He did not want to leave his buddies behind. “It just wasn’t right,” he told me later.
The tall, lanky general towered over the grunt. “Your father raised one hell of a young man,” he said, looking Miller in the eye. They said goodbye, and Natonski scrambled back to the command post.
For his loyalty, Miller was rewarded with horror. The assault on Fallouja raged on, leaving nearly 100 Americans dead and 450 wounded. The bodies of some 1,200 insurgents littered the streets.
As the fighting dragged on for a month, the story fell off the front page. I joined the exodus of journalists heading home or moving to the next story.
More than a year and a half would pass before I saw Miller again.
Back home, I immersed myself in other assignments, trying to put Fallouja behind me. Yet not a day went by that I didn’t think about Miller and what we experienced in Iraq.
National Public Radio interviewed me. Much to my embarrassment, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution in my honor. I became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Bloggers riffed on the photo’s meaning. Requests for prints kept coming.
In January 2006, I was on assignment along the U.S.-Mexico border when my wife called. “Your boy is on TV. He has PTSD,” she said. “They kicked him out of the Marines.”
I’d spoken with Miller by phone twice, but the conversations were short and superficial. I knew post-traumatic stress disorder was a complicated diagnosis. So once again, I dug up his number. Again, I offered simple words: Life is sweet. We survived. Everything else is gravy.
As the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion approached, my editors wanted another follow-up story.
So in spring 2006, I traveled to Miller’s hometown of Jonancy, Ky., in the hollows of Appalachia. I drove east from Lexington along Interstate 64, part of the nationwide Purple Heart Trail honoring dead and wounded veterans, before turning south.
Mobile homes and battered cars dot the rugged ranges. Marijuana is a major cash crop. Addiction to methamphetamine and prescription drugs is rampant.
Kids marry young, and boys go to work mining the black seams of coal. Heavy trucks rumble day and night.
Miller showed me around. At an abandoned mine, he walked carefully around a large, shallow pool of standing water that mirrored the green wilderness and springtime sky. He picked up a chunk of coal.
“Around here, this is what it’s all about,” he said. “Nothing else.
“It was this or the Marines.”
Often brooding and sullen, Miller joked about being “21 going on 70,” the result, he said, of humping heavy armor and gear on a 6-foot, 160-pound frame.
Before he was allowed to leave Iraq, he attended a mandatory “warrior transitioning” session about PTSD and adjusting to home life.
Each Marine received a questionnaire. Were they having trouble sleeping? Did they have thoughts of suicide? Did they feel guilt about their actions?
Everybody knew the drill. Answer yes and be evaluated further. Say no and go home.
Miller said he didn’t want to miss his flight. He answered no to every question.
He returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C. His high school sweetheart, Jessica Holbrooks, joined him there, and they were married in a civil ceremony.
Then came the nightmares and hallucinations. He imagined shadowy figures outside the windows. Faces of the dead haunted his sleep.
Once, while cleaning a shotgun, he blacked out. He regained consciousness when Jessica screamed out his name. Snapping back to reality, he realized he was pointing the gun at her.
He reported the problems to superiors, who promised to get him help.
Then came a single violent episode, which put an end to his days as a Marine.
It happened in the storm-tossed Gulf of Mexico in September 2005. His unit had been sent to New Orleans to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Now a second giant storm, Hurricane Rita, was moving in, and the Marines were ordered to seek safety out at sea.
In the claustrophobic innards of a rolling Navy ship, someone whistled. The sound reminded Miller of a rocket- propelled grenade. He attacked the sailor who had whistled. He came to in the boat’s brig. He was medically discharged with a “personality disorder” on Nov. 10, 2005 -- exactly one year after his picture made worldwide news.
Back home in Kentucky, the Millers settled into a sparsely furnished second-story apartment. Four small windows afforded little light. The TV was always on.
Miller bought a motorcycle and went for long rides. He and Jessica drank all night and slept all day. He started collecting a monthly disability benefit of about $2,500. The couple spent hours watching movies on DVD, Coronas and bourbon cocktails in hand. Friends and family gave them space.
Miller had hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement. But the PTSD and abrupt discharge killed that dream. No one would trust him with a weapon.
But at least he didn’t have to go back to Iraq. He started to realize he wasn’t the only one traumatized by war.
“There’s a word for it around here,” Jessica said. “It’s called ‘vets.’ ” She talked of Miller’s grandfather, forever changed by the Korean War and dead by age 35. Her Uncle Hargis, a Vietnam veteran, had it too. He experienced mood swings for years.
Sometimes, Miller’s stories about Iraq unnerved his young bride. He sensed it and talked less. Nobody really understands, he said, unless they’ve been there.
On June 3, 2006, the Millers renewed their vows at a hilltop clubhouse overlooking the forests and strip mines. It was a lavish ceremony paid for by donors from across the country who had read about Miller’s travails or seen him on television. Local businesses pitched in as well.
His father and two younger brothers were supposed to be groomsmen but didn’t show up. His estranged mother wasn’t invited.
Miller looked sharp in his Marine Corps dress uniform of dark-blue cloth and red piping. Jessica was lovely in white, her long hair gathered high.
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 his courage in going public about his PTSD. Its leaders also wanted him to visit key lawmakers to share his experience.
As a boy, Miller confided, he had embraced religion, even going so far as to become an ordained minister by mail order. He knew the Bible verses, felt the passion for preaching.
That’s how he found his new mission: to tell people what it was like to come home from war with a broken mind.
Three days after their wedding, I tagged along as the young couple flew to the nation’s capital. Easily distracted by the offer of free drinks for an all-American hero, Miller stayed out until 3 a.m. He was hung over when he met with House members a few hours later.
Miller chatted up GOP Rep. Harold Rogers, the congressman from his district. He smoked and frequently cursed while recounting his combat experiences. I cringed but stayed on the sidelines, snapping photos.
Miller shuffled from one congressional office to the next, passing displays filled with photos of Marines killed in Iraq. As he told his story over and again, the politicians listened politely and thanked Miller for his service. One congressman sent an aide to tell Miller he was too busy to meet. No one promised to take up his cause.
After Miller picked up his award, he took a whirlwind tour past the White House and Lincoln Memorial, but his mind was elsewhere. At a bar the night before, free booze had flowed in honor of the Marlboro Marine. Miller wanted more.
“Let’s get drunk,” he said.
I returned to Los Angeles the next morning, thinking I would catch up with Miller in a couple of months.
A week later, Jessica called. After they got home, Miller’s mood had become volatile. He was OK one minute and in a deep funk the next, she told me. Then he’d disappeared. She hadn’t seen him for days.
Could I come to Kentucky and help?
Why me? I thought. I am not Miller’s brother. Or his father. I could feel the line between journalist and subject blurring. Was I covering the story or becoming part of it?
I traveled all night to get to Pikeville, Ky., and soon found myself with Jessica, making the rounds of all the places Miller might have gone. I wanted to be somewhere else -- anywhere else.
Finally, the next morning, Jessica saw her husband driving in the opposite direction. She did a U-turn, hit the gas and caught up with him down the road.
He got out of his truck. A woman sat in the passenger seat.
“Who is that, Blake?” Jessica demanded. “Who is she?”
He said her name was Sherry. They had just met, and he was helping her move. Jessica didn’t believe him.
I thought: Didn’t I attend this young couple’s fairy tale wedding just 10 days ago? Now, here they were, in a gas station parking lot, creating a spectacle.
Jessica grilled Miller. He bobbed and weaved. He appeared sober and sullen. Then he dropped a bomb. He didn’t want her anymore and had filed for divorce.
“You guys might want to go home and talk,” I suggested.
There, the tortured dialogue escalated.
Jessica pleaded with Blake to stop and think. They could quit drinking, she said. They’d get help for him and as a couple. Maybe they could move away -- anything to work it out.
Miller slumped on the couch. I sensed his unease and feared he would become violent, so I stayed for a while even though I felt intrusive. But he remained strangely calm, albeit brooding and distant.
I returned the next morning. He called his attorney and put the phone on speaker. If uncontested, the lawyer said, the divorce would become final in 60 days. Jessica went to the fire escape to gather herself.
Miller remained unmoved, chain-smoking. The local newspaper had been calling him about rumors that he was getting divorced. It was a major local story. Finally, he wrote a statement. He asked for compassion and respect for their privacy.
The next day, I found Miller in a back bedroom at his uncle’s house. He told me that he had come close to committing suicide the night before. He had thought about driving his motorcycle off the edge of a mountain road.
He showed me the morning newspaper. His divorce was the lead story.
I felt torn. I didn’t want to get involved. I desperately wanted to close the book on Iraq. But if I hadn’t taken Miller’s picture, this very personal drama wouldn’t be front-page news. I felt responsible.
Sometimes, when things get hard to witness, I use my camera as a shield. It creates a space for me to work -- and distance to keep my eyes open and my feelings in check. But Miller had no use for a photojournalist. He needed a helping hand.
I flashed back to the chaos of combat in Fallouja. In the rattle and thunder, brick walls separated me from the world coming to an end. In the tight spaces, we were scared mindless. Everybody dragged deeply on cigarettes.
Above the din, I heard what everybody was thinking: This is the end.
I’ve never felt so completely alone.
I snapped back to the present, and before I knew it, the words spilled out.
“I have to ask you something, Blake,” I said. “If I’d gone down in Fallouja, would you have carried me out?”
“Damn straight,” he said, without hesitation.
“OK then,” I said. “I think you’re wounded pretty badly. I want to help you.”
He looked at me for a moment. “All right,” he said.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.