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11-12-07, 01:31 PM #1
Two lives blurred together by a photo
Two lives blurred together by a photo
Times photographer Luis Sinco made James Blake Miller an emblem of the war. The image would change both of their lives and connect them in ways neither imagined.
By Luis Sinco, Times Staff Photographer
First of two parts
November 11, 2007
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 flaresthat 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.
11-12-07, 01:32 PM #2
Rescue operation aims to save a wounded warrior
Despite concerns of overstepping, Times photographer Luis Sinco feels compelled to help the Iraq vet he made famous.
By Luis Sinco : Times Staff Photographer
Second of two parts
November 12, 2007
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.
11-12-07, 01:37 PM #3
VIDEO: PART ONE
11-12-07, 01:43 PM #4
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