Sunday, January 22, 2006 - 12:00 AM
Former Marine is "Marlboro Man" no more
By Jim Warren
Knight Ridder Newspapers

LONG FORK, Ky. — The steep mountainsides in western Pike County are painted in the drabbest of winter browns and grays now, but already there is a feeling in the air that the land is ready to break out with spring color.

Maybe that's a good omen for a young man back home after a tour in Iraq but still struggling to cope with the psychological shocks that cut short his career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Millions of Americans remember him only as the "Marlboro Man": the grubby, exhausted Marine lance corporal with a cigarette dangling from his lips in a famous 2004 photograph from the battle for Fallujah. The picture became one of the iconic images of the Iraq war.

Around Pike County, though, he's just plain Blake Miller, 21, and a civilian again. Today, he's intent on getting over the blackouts and the nightmares, and building a new life with his new wife, Jessica.

And the man whose image became a symbol of the war now wrestles with his own feelings about the conflict.

Today, he doesn't look much like that 2004 photograph. He's clean-cut, with brown hair and a thin mustache, still close to his high-school football playing weight of 155. He still smokes a little more than a pack of Marlboros a day but has cut down from the five packs he was burning through every day at the height of the Fallujah battle.

He carries some shrapnel scars — and some scars you can't see.

"I could tell you stories about Iraq that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck," he said. "And I could tell you things that were great over there. But that still wouldn't tell you what it was actually like. You had to be there and go through it to really understand."

Psychological impact

Miller said he began having problems soon after returning from Iraq last year: sleeplessness, nightmares, times when he would "blank out," not knowing what he was doing or where he was.

Just after Hurricane Katrina last fall, Miller was sent to New Orleans, where he and other Marines waded through flooded neighborhoods, recovering bodies. Along the way, the stresses piled up, and they boiled over a few days later while Miller was on board the USS Iwo Jima, a Navy ship on hurricane duty off the Gulf Coast.

"I was coming out of the galley, when this sailor made a whistling noise that resembled the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade," Miller said. "You had to have heard that sound to duplicate it. I don't know why he did it. Maybe he was just poking fun at Marines. But something just triggered and I flipped out.

"They said that I grabbed him, threw him against the bulkhead and put him down on the deck, with me on top of him. But I have no recollection of it whatsoever."

There had been some other incidents. Eventually, three military psychiatrists diagnosed Miller as having post-traumatic stress disorder. The Marines, concluding Miller could be a threat to himself or to his teammates in any future combat situation, granted him an early but honorable discharge.

Miller became a civilian Nov. 10, the one-year anniversary of the date the photograph from Fallujah hit the newspapers.

"At first, I was irate because I wanted to stay in and make a career out of it," he said. "I liked being a Marine ... But I decided that this is what I'm stuck with, so I've got to deal with it."

Now, Miller regularly sees a therapist (the government is picking up the bill) and he said he is doing well. He wants the public to better understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and realize that those who have it don't deserve public stigma.

"The biggest reason I did this interview is because I want people to know that PTSD is not something people come down with because they're crazy. It's an anxiety disorder, where you've experienced something so traumatic that you were close to death.

"A lot of Vietnam vets suffered from PTSD, but nobody took the time to understand or help them. Now, some of those guys are living on the street. You look at their situation, and you think about what they did for their country and where they are now ... that hurts."

Doubts over war

He has gone through other changes, including doubts about the war.

"When I was in the service, my opinion was whatever the commander in chief's opinion was," he said. "But after I got out, I really started thinking about it. ... The biggest question I have is how you can make war on an entire country, when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew up some stuff, and Iraq started a war against us because of that.

"I agree with taking care of terrorism. But after terrorism was dealt with, the way it was after Fallujah, maybe that was the time for us to pull out. That's just my opinion. It blows my mind that we've continued to drag this out."

James Blake Miller grew up in Pike County, the oldest of three active, athletic brothers. He decided very early that, like his grandfather, he would become a Marine.

Greg Napier, Miller's football coach at Shelby Valley High School, recalls that when he asked new students to list their career goals, Miller wrote: U.S. Marine Corps. He said Miller worked so hard compensating for his lack of size that he injured his shoulder lifting weights and had to give up football.

"I think that was the saddest I ever saw him," Napier said. "He was afraid he wouldn't get into the Marines because of his shoulder, but they did take him."

Miller joined the Marines after graduating in 2003 and was assigned to the infantry. He went to Iraq the next year with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and became a part of the Marine force assembled to clear insurgents out of Fallujah. The monthlong operation is remembered as perhaps the toughest of the war.

Even now, Miller struggles trying to describe it.

"You see movies where somebody gets shot. It's nothing to see somebody get shot; that's just a movie.

"But when you see it in real life, it's completely different ... the feeling you have afterward is completely different. Even when you're being shot at, and you're returning fire ... whether you've hit anybody or not ... it's knowing that you're actually shooting at somebody. At the time you don't think about it... but afterward, it's mind-boggling, it really is."

On the second day of the battle, Miller and some buddies found themselves on the roof of a building, under heavy sniper fire. Into the action rushed Luis Sinco, a Los Angeles Times photographer embedded with Miller's outfit.

"We had no idea he was coming up the stairs; in fact, we almost shot him," Miller said. "But when he got up there, he decided to snap some pictures."

Sinco recalls that he took cover behind a wall and that a Marine came over, sat down beside him and lit a cigarette. It was Miller. Sinco raised his camera and fired the shutter.

When Sinco got ready to electronically transmit his photos back to the Los Angeles Times later that night, he wasn't very impressed with the picture. It was just another shot of another Marine. Indeed, it was the last picture he selected to send that day. It turned out to be perhaps the most memorable picture of the war so far.

Sinco, who has stayed in touch with Miller, said he thought his editors would be more interested in action pictures.

"But somehow that portrait just resonated with everyone who saw it," Sinco said. "It's as if all the emotions of the war converged on Blake's face at that moment: bravery, doubt, hope, fatigue, despair. It's all written on his face."

The photo was carried in more than 100 U.S. newspapers, including The Seattle Times, put on national television, and published all over the world.

"Famous Marine"

Shortly after the photograph appeared, he was told that Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, was on the way to see him.

"The general said, 'You're a pretty famous Marine today,' " Miller recalled. "I said, 'With all due respect, sir, I don't understand what's going on.' He said, 'Your picture is all over the United States right now. They were saying the picture would go into history books,' and I thought that they were joking."

Sinco said the Marine Corps offered to pull Miller out of the Fallujah battle then, not wanting the suddenly famous Marine to be injured or killed. But Miller refused.

His mother said he insisted he was no hero and wanted no hoopla.

He and Jessica married in June. Problems with post-traumatic stress have cast a cloud over what has been an otherwise joyous time for the two. Nevertheless, they are looking to the future. Blake is thinking of starting a business.

He and Jessica live with her grandparents in western Pike County. They plan to build a home nearby.

"Right now," Miller said, "I'm just glad to be here."