Marine Whose Photo Lit Up Imaginations Keeps His Cool

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Marlboro man is angry: He has a war to fight and he’s running out of smokes.

“If you want to write something,” he tells an intruding reporter, “tell Marlboro I’m down to four packs and I’m here in Fallouja till who knows when. Maybe they can send some. And they can bring down the price a bit.”

Such are the unvarnished sentiments of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, 20, a country boy from Kentucky who has been thrust unwittingly and somewhat unwillingly into the role of poster boy for a war on the other side of the world from his home on the farm.

“I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Miller drawls Friday as he crouches inside an abandoned building with his platoon mates, preparing to fight insurgents holed up in yet another mosque. “I was just smokin’ a cigarette and someone takes my picture and it all blows up.”

Miller is the young man whose gritty, war-hardened portrait appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times, taken by Luis Sinco, a Times photographer traveling with Miller’s unit: Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

In the full-frame photo, taken after more than 12 hours of nearly nonstop deadly combat, Miller’s camouflage war paint is smudged. He sports a bloody nick on his nose. His helmet and chin strap frame a weary expression that seems to convey the timeless fatigue of battle.

And there is the cigarette, of course, drooping from the right side of his mouth in a manner that Bogart or John Wayne would have approved of. Wispy smoke drifts off to his left.

The image, printed in more than 100 newspapers, has quickly moved into the realm of the iconic.

That Miller’s name was not included in the caption material only seemed to enhance the photograph’s punch.

The Los Angeles Times and other publications have received scores of e-mails wanting to know about this mysterious figure. Many women, in particular, have inquired about how to contact him.

“The photo captures his weariness yet his eyes hold the spirit of the hunter and the hunted,” wrote one admirer in an e-mail. “His gaze is warm but deadly. I want to send a letter.”

The photo seems to have struck a chord, as an image of America striking back at a perceived enemy, or just one young man putting his life on the line halfway across the globe.

Whatever the case, top Marine brass are thrilled.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, dropped in Friday on Charlie Company to laud the featured unit.

“That’s a great picture,” echoed Col. Craig Tucker, who heads the regimental combat team that includes Miller’s battalion. “We’re having one blown up and sent over to the unit.”

Miller, though, has been oddly left out of the hoopla.

Sattler did not single him out during his visit. In fact, Miller only heard about it from the two Los Angeles Times staffers traveling with his unit.

He seemed incredulous.

“A picture?” he asks. “What’s the fuss?”

What does he think about the Marines, anyway?

“I already signed the papers, so I got no choice but to do what we’re doing.”

The photo was taken the afternoon after Charlie Company’s harrowing entry into Fallouja under intense hostile fire, in the cold and rain. Miller was on the roof of a home where he and his fellow 1st Platoon members had spent the day engaged in practically nonstop firefights, fending off snipers and attackers who rushed the building. No one had slept in more than 24 hours. All were physically and emotionally drained.

“It was kind of crazy out here at first,” Miller says. “No one really knew what to expect. They told us about it all the time, but no one knows for sure until you get here.”

In person, he is unassuming: of medium height, his face slightly pimpled, his teeth a little crooked.

Miller takes his share of ribbing as a small-towner in a unit that includes Marines from big cities.

And it has only increased as word of the platoon radio man’s instant fame has spread among his mates.

“Miller, when you get home you’ll be a hero,” Cpl. Mark Waller, 21, from Oklahoma, says.

Miller is now obliged to provide smokes to just about anyone who asks. It’s just about wiped out his stash.

“When we came to Fallouja I had two cartons and three packs,” Miller said glumly, adding that his supply had dwindled to a mere four packs -- not much for a Marine with a three-pack-a day habit. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Even in the Marines, where smoking is widespread, the extent of Miller’s habit has raised eyebrows.

“I tried to get him to stop -- the cigarettes will kill him before the war,” says Navy Corpsman Anthony Lopez, a company medic.

Miller, who was sent to Iraq in June, is the eldest of three brothers from the hamlet of Jonancy, Ky., in the heart of Appalachian coal country.

Never heard of Jonancy?

“It’s named after my greatgreat-great grandparents: Joe and Nancy Miller,” the Marine explained. “They were the first people in those parts.”

His father, James Miller, is a mechanic and farmer, and the young Miller grew up working crops: potatoes, corn, green beans.

His mother, Maxie Webber, 39, is a nurse. She last talked to her son Sunday via a satellite phone. He could only speak for a few minutes, long enough to say hello and reassure his family.

After the U.S. attack on Fallouja began Monday, family members waited for some message that he was alive. Days later, they sat in shock as newscaster Dan Rather talked about The Times’ photograph. Who is this man, Rather asked, with the tired eyes and a look of determination?

“I screamed at the TV, ‘That’s my son!’ ” Webber said.

Others in Jonancy, including his own father, didn’t recognize the camouflaged and bloodied man as the boy they knew.

“He had that stuff on his face. And the expression, that look,” said Rodney Rowe, Miller’s high school basketball coach. “Those are not the eyes I’m used to seeing in his face.”

Back in high school, Miller was an athlete, joining every team that played a sport involving a ball. The school, Shelby Valley High, is located in Pikeville, the nearest town of any consequence and the home of an annual three-day spring festival called “Hillbilly Days.”

Miller was somewhat unsure what to do with himself after high school. His father never wanted him to work in the mines.

“He would have been disappointed if I did that,” Miller says. “He told me it was awful work.”

So Miller enlisted in the Marines in July 2003 after a conversation with a recruiter he met at a football game.

“What I really wanted to do was auto body repair,” he says. “But before I knew it, I was in boot camp.”

Now, he says, he is just trying to get through each day. His predecessor as platoon radio man was sent home after being injured in a car bomb attack.

Miller has three years remaining in active duty, but he appears disinclined to reenlist.

And he shrugs off suggestions he may cash in on his fame. “When I get out, I just want to chill out a little bit,” he says. “Go back to my house, farm a little bit, do some mechanical stuff around the house and call it a day.”

Oh, and one more thing: “I’ll just sit on my roof and smoke a cigarette.”

McDonnell is traveling with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, in Fallouja. Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report.