Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, 24, formerly of Wheaton and a 2002 graduate of Wheaton North High School was killed in action Jan. 25 while conducting combat operations near Barikowt, Afghanistan. He was a green beret.
There are 24 smiling faces on Page 24 of Wheaton North High School's 2002 yearbook.
They run the gamut from toothy grin to mischievous smirk.
But then there's Rob Miller's senior portrait -- the 25th on the page. Steely-eyed and intense, Miller's lips aren't budging up or down.
"Yeah, I know that look well," said Chad Downie, Miller's high school gymnastics coach. "That look is one of focus and concentration, and I saw it a lot."
The look is the similar in Miller's Army portrait. His head cocked up slightly, giving him a greater air of confidence. It was probably taken after his recent promotion to staff sergeant.
"That look can be quite deceiving, though," Downie said. "He was always quick with a joke and a smile."
His teachers said Miller challenged himself both physically and mentally throughout school, and he brought that attitude with him when he enlisted in the Army in 2003.
He immediately began special forces training and became a Green Beret in 2005. He had also completed Ranger training.
Since 2006, his special forces detail had been stationed in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. It's one of the most dangerous assignments in the military, fighting al-Qaida members roving through the mountainous terrain, hunting Osama bin Laden.
Among the bevy of awards and citations he received during his brief Army career was the Army Commendation Medal for Valor.
"Where he was, on a daily basis, there's up to six to a dozen engagements with the enemy that can last anywhere from two hours to 10 hours," said Lt. Col. Clarence Counts. "With this (award), it was probably something associated with some type of combat event like that."
And such an event like that would also end his young life.
He was shot and killed Friday during a firefight near a border town in northeast Afghanistan.
"We're very proud of our son," his tearful father, Philip Miller, said Monday by phone from his home in Florida. "He died in combat defending our country, doing what he loved and serving with his friends."
Miller is also survived by his mother, Maureen, as well as three brothers and four sisters.
"Rob was our oldest son," Philip said. "We thank God for blessing us with Rob and for the years we had him with us."
Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the Baldwin Fairchild Funeral Home at 501 E. Mitchell Hammock Road in Oviedo, Fla. A funeral Mass will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Catholic Church at 1501 N. Alafaya Trail in Orlando, Fla.
The family spent several years in Wheaton before moving to Florida about four years ago. Miller attended St. Michael Catholic School in Wheaton before going on to Wheaton North.
"He was a great kid," said Bill Cashin, St. Michael's physical education teacher for the past 37 years. "He was his own guy, nice to everybody and a fun kid to have in class. You never had to worry about him."
Cashin was pleased to see Miller find success with his high school's gymnastics team but won't take any credit for his former pupil's athleticism.
"He did quite well, but I don't know where that interest came from; we don't have anything like that for the kids here," he said. "He was very proud of what he was doing and would come back to St. Mike's to talk about the team."
Miller was co-captain of the team his junior and senior years, Downie said. He called the former all-conference gymnast a "natural leader."
"We always talk to the kids about getting them to emulate Rob," Downie said. "I remember I used to have to kick him out of the gym and tell him to stop working out because he was just so intensely focused on doing better."
During his senior year, Miller led the squad to a fifth-place finish at the state tournament. Downie said this was the turning point for a now-popular program at the school.
"That was the beginning of a real neat run for us," he said.
Downie said Miller remained close to his former teammates after graduating.
"Rob was a real good friend," Downie said. "When he was on leave in October, he stayed with me when he came to the wedding of his co-captain, Dan Murphy."
It really wasn't a surprise to anyone when Miller enlisted. It wasn't even that shocking when he optioned for special forces training. He had talked about it with buddies, teachers and his father, a former Army man himself.
He had spent a year at the University of Iowa, but he kept eyeing the Army.
With an extraordinary aptitude for foreign languages, Rob found his true calling in special forces, which requires proficiency in at least one other language. He became skilled in several, his father said.
"That's another thing I remember about him," Downie said. "He was this rare kid who took Latin in high school because he thought it would be challenging."
Downie also taught Miller during his sophomore year.
"I taught him sophomore English, and I remember we were reading Julius Caesar and he clung to this one line," Downie said. "It was, 'The cowardly die a thousand deaths, the valiant die but one.' He put it on the back of our gymnastics team shirts."