Daily Herald
Hero 'knew what he was doing' when he gave his life for his team
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 10/2/2010 10:50 AM | Updated: 10/2/2010 11:35 PM

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A standout athlete at Wheaton North High School, Robert Miller was so passionate about one line from "Julius Caesar" that he had it printed on the back of his gymnastics team's shirts: "The cowardly die a thousand deaths, the valiant die but one."

Miller died once. This is how.

In the predawn darkness of Jan. 25, 2008, Special Forces Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller's team of eight elite soldiers and 15 Afghan troops began searching for enemy insurgents in a rocky, snow-covered valley of Gowardesh, Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.

The youngest of his squad at 24, Miller studied Latin in high school just for the challenge of it, learned French in his Green Beret training and had picked up the native language of Pashto as he shared meals or tea with people in the Afghan villages. So Miller was the ideal point man when the battle began, yelling orders to his Afghan teammates. Jumping into the turret of his armored vehicle and opening fire, Miller switched to a machine gun after his grenade-launcher jammed. He provided information that was radioed to aircraft, which dropped bombs on enemy positions.

In the chilling stillness that followed, Miller and his men crossed a bridge and an enemy insurgent crouching behind a boulder 16 feet away shouted "Allah Akbar!" (God is Great) and opened fire.

Miller shot him dead.

That's when an estimated 140 enemy soldiers lurking in the rocks overhead unleashed their rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and AK-47 assault rifles, ambushing Miller and his patrol, who were caught in an open area known as "the kill zone."

As his startled Afghan troops fled downhill, Miller saved their lives by charging forward, according to the official military investigation and sworn statements of the soldiers there. In the darkness, the flash from the muzzle of Miller's weapon let the enemy know where he was. Aware of that, Miller continued his charge, relaying information and throwing hand grenades as he drew fire away from his troops.

"He immediately just took the fight to the enemy," says Master Sgt. Jim Lodyga, explaining that Miller's actions were "not like Rambo," but were the perfect example of following the Special Forces training to "shoot, move, communicate."

"Robby went above and beyond that," Lodyga says, telling how Miller charged the enemy's machine gun nests and gave his own team time to find cover and fight back against overwhelming odds.

An enemy bullet found a space between plates of armor in Miller's vest and ripped through the flesh under his right arm. Miller turned, shot and killed his attackers. Enemy fire dropped Miller's commander, Capt. Robert Cusick. The wounded Miller remained at the front, moving through the snow, drawing fire and shouting orders to his men, allowing his critically wounded commander to be rescued.

Bullets fired at Miller stirred up so much dust around him, his team couldn't even see him. A second bullet tore through his ribs on his left side. For the next 25 minutes, Miller, mortally wounded, continued the fight. He killed at least 16 insurgents and wounded another 30 until his machine gun was out of ammunition and he had thrown his last grenade.

Only then did Miller die.

His team fought seven hours before they routed the insurgents and recovered Miller's body, his machine gun still in his hands.

"If it wasn't for his action that day, I have no doubt in my mind they (insurgents) could have just walked us to the river, shooting us the whole time," Lodyga says, adding that everyone would have been killed because "it was shooting fish in a barrel."

Instead, Miller was the only death as his seven fellow Special Forces troops and 15 Afghan soldiers survived the victorious battle. His wounded captain reportedly sneaked out of the hospital to attend Miller's funeral.

President Barack Obama will present his proud but forever-grieving parents with their son's Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, in a White House ceremony on Wednesday. People who knew Miller aren't surprised that he gave his all.

"I think that was just his nature," says his mother, Maureen Miller. "If he didn't want to get into something wholeheartedly, he didn't do it-but when he set his mind to doing something, he did it wholeheartedly."

Miller got excellent training and "everybody did what they were supposed to do," says his father, Phil Miller. "Our son is getting the recognition-but there are so many others."

The younger Miller took to the battlefield the same attributes of hard work, desire, leadership and humility he once used in gymnastics.

"He knew what he was in. He had a clear consciousness of what he knew he was getting into. He wasn't careless," says longtime friend Bobby Kaye, 27, a former high school gymnastics teammate who knows the way Miller prepares. "He knew what he was doing. I say that with confidence. He knew exactly what he had to do. He knew, and he reacted. He wasn't just looking out for himself. He was looking after his guys, his team."

During his senior year as captain on the Wheaton North High School gymnastics team, Miller led his squad to a fifth-place finish at the state tournament.

"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," recalls Chad Downie, his coach, teacher and friend.

Like many boys, Miller played war with toy guns as a kid.

"He enjoyed playing with old uniforms of mine, and seeing the old war movies and that kind of stuff," remembers his father, a civil engineer who served as a German translator during his brief U.S. Army stint. "He certainly had a proclivity for action and excitement and running around doing stuff. It was always a possibility he was going to be out there."

But Robert Miller possessed an unusual understanding and maturity about war.

"I taught English as a second language to Cambodian refugees and he got to be friends with their children," his mother says, recalling their life in Pennsylvania before they moved to Wheaton when Rob was 6. The boy heard the refugees' stories of life during wartime.

"I know that made an impression on him," Maureen Miller says, echoing the lesson he learned: "There are bad people in the world and there has to be a military to keep that from happening."

In a photograph of Miller and some buddies at a friend's wedding, Miller is standing above them in the back, his arms stretched out as if he's embracing the other six friends.

"I always thought he looked like an angel, spreading his wings and protecting them," his mom says.

As a kindergartner, he dressed as "Zero the Hero" for Halloween. For an eighth-grade English project at St. Michael Parish School in Wheaton, the likable boy wrote a poem about a famous World War II siege in which outnumbered Americans fought bravely in harsh conditions to save a Belgium town from the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge.

"He wrote his poem about the men of Bastogne," says teacher Peggy Flynn, who still has that poem.

When she read about Miller's heroism, she was struck by how she "didn't have any idea how many awards he got before he died."

His friend Kaye, who enlisted after high school and served in Iraq, says he did exchange some war stories with Miller, but Miller was too humble to tell the full stories.

"He was very modest about his stories. You had to hear it and then add 10 times more," Kaye says.

"We had no idea the level of action he had been in," says Phil Miller, who proudly used the photo of his son riding a white horse through an Afghan village as his computer screen saver at work.

"We wouldn't hear a whole lot of detail about what he actually did... He kind of watered down how dangerous the work was he was doing," his dad says, recalling how even though his son grasped the honor of receiving medals for valor in earlier battles, he downplayed his heroism by explaining, "Well, yeah, it was for doing stuff over there."

The danger to Miller was obvious, but not something his close-knit parents and seven siblings obsessed about.

"Even when he was in high school doing gymnastics, I knew that one wrong move and he could be paralyzed for life," his mother says.

In his last visit to the family home in Florida, where the Millers moved after he graduated from high school, Robert Miller spent his last moments fixing a screen that was damaged by the cat during his tradition of throwing the family dog and cat into the family's pool. In their final phone conversation the week before his death, Miller talked about riding horses in Afghanistan.

"He loved being over there," his dad says. "He'd tell stories about meeting people. He'd tell stories about how fantastic the natural topography would be for skiing and snowboarding if people could just stop shooting each other."

Miller met with the locals and did the sort of positive "nation building" that Special Forces are trained to do, Lodyga says. When Miller returned for a second tour in Afghanistan, the local soldiers recognized him.

"They started high-fiving and whooping it up, and having a good old time," Phil Miller says.

On the Memorial Day after his death, the Miller family received a hand-knotted wool rug from his Afghan soldiers that featured a detailed map of Afghanistan with Miller's name, unit and location worked into the design. Touched by the outpouring of affection, his parents say their son always made friends with strangers.

"He loved going to the ponds at Northside Park or Rathje Park in Wheaton when it was frozen in the wintertime and just playing pickup games of hockey," his mom says. "He had no problem going up to total strangers and joining their games. He was not the least bit shy."

Among the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan during the past nine years, Miller is only the third to receive the Medal of Honor.

"Rob was so good at what he did, no matter what. You know you're not better than him," says Kaye, who joins his parents and sister in Warrenville to lower the flag on the anniversary of Miller's death and celebrate his birthday with a special dinner. As heartbroken as he is about his friend's death, Kaye says he's proud that Miller's story will be part of our nation's history.

"If he didn't do it, I would have said he wasted his talent," Kaye says of his hero and friend. "God gave him a gift to be physically and mentally strong, and that's what he excelled in."