Wounded Warrior Shares His Journey
The fact that Dan Miller was standing on the stage at the Mayflower Hotel during NFDA’s recent Advocacy Summit to share his personal journey offered some indication that his story did not have a tragic ending. It was the tragedy along the way that held the undivided attention of attendees, who were riveted to every detail of his experiences.
Now advocating for the Wounded Warrior Project, Miller retired from the U.S. Marines in May 2015 after serving 29 years – five on active duty and 24 years as a reservist. He served in many roles and was deployed numerous times, including during Desert Storm and twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He also worked as a police officer for 21 years, retiring from the force in June 2015.
Miller’s presence in and of itself was testimony to the value and effectiveness of the Wounded Warrior Project.
“Dan will be the first to tell you that he loved serving in the Marines and fighting for his country, but the years took their toll,” said NFDA President Ashley Cozine in his introduction. “I am truly honored to welcome an American hero as our closing speaker.”
As Miller himself said, “When you see the destruction, the lives lost, the sacrifices and the suffering, it changes you. But then it was happening; I didn’t have time to process it, so I buried it. I had to because there was always the next mission, the next rocket or improvised explosive device, the danger to prevent or avoid. Those experiences can’t stay buried forever.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Miller said his childhood in the city wasn’t easy, but through it all, he said, his mother was his rock. “My mother instilled in me the ideal of service to others before self,” said Miller. “She tried to raise me to the best of her ability to believe in that mantra and to live it every day.”
As a boy, he watched war movies and played with soldiers and G.I. Joes in the backyard, and he and his friends would play army. He was intrigued with the notion of joining the Army.
In high school, Miller was an athlete on both the school’s wrestling and football teams but said he made up his mind during his sophomore year that he was going to join the military. When he went to the local recruiting station, Miller said, he was full of enthusiasm and wanted to “be all I can be.” The recruiter at the desk, though, did not have the same level of enthusiasm, told Miller he was eating lunch and asked if he could come back in a half-hour.
Disappointed, Miller walked away but was stopped by a highly decorated senior officer, who asked, “What are you doing here?” Miller replied that he was looking to join the Army. The officer invited him to sit down and asked if he knew what the Marine Corps was. Well, John Wayne and the Sands of Iwo Jima, Miller answered.
“So he starts explaining the Marine Corps to me, and it sounds pretty adventurous – soldiers on the sea,” Miller said. Being just 16 at the time, Miller was told that if he came back when he was 17, with his mother’s signature, he could join.
Excitedly, Miller ran home to tell his mother about his plan to join the Marines. But despite his enthusiasm, his mother was not on board.
Then fate intervened. A knee injury during the wrestling season put Miller’s Marine plans on hold. After being told by his physical therapist that he would never run again, Miller was determined to prove him wrong. His determination also impacted his mother, who relented and let him join the Marines. Following boot camp, Miller said, he made sure he went to see that physical therapist who had told him he’d never run again.
As a U.S. marine infantryman, Miller’s first stop was in Hawaii. Following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Miller’s commanding officer came in and told the infantrymen they were going to war. When he called home with the news, his father told him, “Son, keep your head down, listen to your bosses and fight for the man next to you, not your country. Country will take care of itself.”
Miller described his first taste of war as a bit anticlimactic. Being fully trained for any and all contingencies, he said his combat experience was limited to one occasion when an Iraqi soldier shot at him, and then everyone in his unit shot back. Another Iraqi soldier stood in front of their vehicle with his white underwear on a stick as a sign of surrender. What followed was Miller’s unit taking scores of Iraqis prisoner. In reality, these “soldiers” were conscripted to fight by the Hussein government but had no desire to do so.
But that was just the first taste. Next, he spent 11 months in the desert living in the back of a truck. His mission was to recover the bodies of those Iraqis killed in action by the air strikes. “The real face of war is not John Wayne and the Sands of Iwo Jima; [it was] walking around that desert looking for body parts and trying to piece things together,” he said.
Miller spent months gathering bodies and body parts, stacking them up for the bulldozer that was to dig a hole for them. They left a GPS system there so the Iraqi government could come to bring them home.
“I felt that these men fought for their country and are now in a hole in the desert and the only people who know they are there is the GPS system,” Miller said. “That experience shook me and scared me because the reality was we could get killed out there. It didn’t hit me at first, but it hit me after doing that for so long.”
Miller was excited to get back to Hawaii, and he wanted to take some leave to go home to see his mother. But when he made the call, another relative answered the phone and told Miller to come home right away.
He did and was able to hold his mother one last time before she died. “She had stage IV cancer,” Miller said. “I was the last person she saw. She looked into my eyes and I looked into hers, and my heart broke.”
His mind flashed back to the way the soldiers he buried in the desert looked; Miller described them as mannequins. “I looked at my mother, and I didn’t want to associate her with that, but that’s what she looked like. It bothered me. I didn’t know how to take it or what to do with it, so I buried it. Marines don’t cry.”
Following his mother’s death, Miller decided to leave active duty and stay in Chicago. A relative suggested he join the police force while remaining in the Marine reserves.
So that’s what he did, and for several years, Miller said, life was good. He married and had a child. “I had forgotten, or at least I thought I had forgotten, what I did in Iraq and Kuwait,” he said.
And then September 11, 2001, happened. At the time, Miller was a reservist and the desire to serve others before serving oneself was taking hold of him again. He wanted to fight.
Almost three years later, Miller received the call that his reserve unit was being activated. By then, he and his wife had a second child. But now he was a gunnery sergeant in the Marines on his way to Iraq. He was stationed in a place called the Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad. Every day, there was contact with the enemy, and then one day, Miller’s unit suffered its first casualty.
“I remember looking at him and he was no longer there; he looked like a wax figure,” Miller said. “Now what do we do? Nobody trained us, so we put him in a bag in the back of a vehicle and finished our patrol.
“Graves Registration came and took him away,” he continued, “and I remember that when they picked him up, I told them they had better be careful with him.”
Miller then explained that for every soldier in combat, if they ever faced a moment in time when they didn’t think they were going to make it, it was called an Alive Day.
“November 11, 2004, was my first Alive Day,” said Miller.
He was given an order to take out a high-level target, someone known as Rocket Man. “He would kill a lot of soldiers by firing rockets onto bases, and he was good at it,” Miller said, “and we knew where he was.”
Miller doesn’t recall why, but he got in the face of one of his men. After the chewing-out, he took a couple steps away. Suddenly, Miller heard what he described as a “whoosh.” A rocket crashed through the building only a few feet from where he was standing, and the next thing he knew he was thrown across the room. Trying to wake up from the shock of the blast, Miller thought he was dead. “I couldn’t see, smell, hear – nothing,” he said. “I was lying there and thinking this was what it was to die.”
Then he started to hear some ringing sounds, he could smell again and could feel his body tingling. He then heard screaming, louder than he’d ever heard anyone scream before. His vision still blurry, Miller looked around and saw light. His hands were bloody and he realized he was bleeding from his ears. As his vision began to focus more, he saw the soldier who only moments ago he was chewing out.
“I realized I had been picked up and thrown 10 feet into a wall by the blast of the enemy rocket,” he said. “I found out later that if that rocket had worked properly, it would have vaporized me and [the other soldier].”
Not able to walk, Miller crawled over to the soldier and realized that his injuries were very bad. “When I was looking at him, he started to turn gray and blue, and the eyes started to go dim,” he said. “The corpsman came over and told me I had to keep him awake, keep him looking at me.”
The whole time this was happening, there were more rockets blasting, but Miller didn’t hear anything. He was walking around picking up the soldier’s gear and found a photograph of the soldier’s wife and three kids. In his mind, as a Marine gunnery sergeant, he told himself that he just widowed that woman and took the father away from those kids. Miller blamed himself as a leader for putting the soldier in that position. As for Miller, the impact of the blast cracked his skull but didn’t break the skin. What he felt was a lump on the back of his head, so he just put his helmet back on and continued his duties.
For nine years, he was told he had migraine headaches. “I didn’t sleep for days,” he said. “This huge fear came over me every time I walked outside a building or a bunker; I couldn’t breathe.
“Then I started to think that I was next,” he continued, thinking, “I hope I’m next; just make it quick.”
When Miller’s unit finished its deployment, it had suffered 16 casualties. “I think of them every day,” he said.
When Miller returned to Chicago, he took his Marine uniform off and put on his police uniform. His wife told him she noticed that there was something different about him, something wrong, that he was not the same person he was when he left. But Miller told her not to tell him how he was because, in his mind, he thought he was fine.
Miller started to fill more and more of his off-duty hours drinking at the bar or at the VFW or American Legion halls. He was drinking hard every day but still working. His wife continued to tell him there was something wrong with him; he wasn’t sleeping restfully at night but was flopping all over the bed.
When Miller took his family out to dinner, he had to sit with his back against the wall to make sure he saw what was happening. One day, he was driving at 60 miles an hour when he saw a box lying in the road. “For some reason, I slammed on the brakes,” he said. “My two kids were in the back, my wife next to me… I saw that box…”
An 18-wheel tractor-trailer was following Miller, the driver leaning on the horn and just managing to avoid hitting Miller’s car. The trucker pulled over and came running up to Miller, screaming at him.
Miller said, “The box.” The trucker replied, “What box? What are you talking about?” The driver walked over and kicked the box and got back into his truck.
Miller’s wife asked him what was wrong. His response: “Nothing, I’m good.”
He continued to ignore other people’s concerns about his behavior. “My wife finally became silent and my kids became silent,” Miller said.
In 2007, Miller’s unit was activated again, sending him back to Iraq. “It was like going back to the scene of the crime,” he said. All the memories he had tried to suppress came rushing back as he walked into the familiar territory.
It was then he realized he was done and wanted to go home, but as a first sergeant in the Marines, his job was to take care of business. His unit’s job was to walk along the side of the road and look for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
One day as his unit was driving down the road, an IED exploded right in front of the vehicle. “That was Alive Day number two,” Miller said. Had the bomb exploded underneath the vehicle, it would have killed everyone. Miller suffered a serious injury in the blast.
After being treated in the hospital, he was told he was being sent to Germany. Miller resisted; he wanted to go back to his unit. About a week later, Miller snuck out of the hospital wearing someone else’s gear, a mismatched uniform, and managed to get back to his unit.
Remarkably, he finished his deployment and went home. Fortunately, no one from his unit was killed during that deployment.
When he returned home, Miller’s wife told him there was definitely something different about him and begged him to get help. His response to her: “You don’t tell me what to do.”
By 2010, Miller said he was enjoying his return to the police department. One day, he heard a call that shots were being fired in a mall. He happened to be nearby and responded and saw people running into the mall. Miller heard a shot and realized the shooter was not in the mall but in the parking lot. He found himself face to face with the shooter, who was standing over a body with his gun pointed at Miller. Miller tried to put his car in park, get his gun out, call for backup, open the door – all while a gun was pointed at him.
“He’s got me; all he has to do is fire,” Miller thought. But when he got out of the car, the gunman was sitting next to the body, which he later learned was the shooter’s wife, and shot himself right in front of Miller.
“I tell that story because after it happened, I had no feeling; it didn’t bother me,” he said. He finished up on the scene and went to have dinner. Afterward, he found himself throwing up in an alley but didn’t know why.
When Miller returned home, his wife had heard about the incident at the mall and asked him if he had been there. He told his wife no, he hadn’t but that he’d heard about it. “I had gotten so good at lying and blowing off my wife and blowing off my children that it was scary,” he said.
The next day, Miller was supposed to have off but went into work anyway and drove around his beat. He knew all the players in the area and remembered one woman whose estranged husband was an alcoholic. She saw Miller and told him that her husband had been seen in the neighborhood and that he shouldn’t be there because she had an order of protection on him. Said Miller: “Well, if you see him, give us a call and we’ll find him and lock him up.”
The next day, Miller volunteered for traffic detail during the funeral of a fireman killed in the line of duty. However, while in the parking lot at the station, he heard a call about shots fired. He knew that address.
Miller sped to the location and was the first one there. Then other officers showed up. Looking around, Miller saw a woman lying near the porch – the same women he had spoken with the day before about her husband. “She was gasping for breath and I was looking at her,” Miller said. “I looked over and saw her husband lying in the grass. Then I looked up and saw their 9-year-old daughter looking through the screen door.
“I looked back down at the woman, she looked at me… and, like my mom, I was the last person she saw on earth,” he said. “When someone dies with their eyes open staring at you, it’s something that will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Miller grabbed the child, put her in the back of the patrol car and drove off. He admitted he spent the next 45 minutes lying to the girl, telling her that her mother would be okay. “I just buried the pain I was feeling,” he said. “I was very good at it.”
It turned out that the husband had been stalking his wife for a day, waiting for her to take out the garbage. He knew her routine. When she came out with the garbage, he shot her twice in the chest and then turned the gun on himself. After that crime scene, Miller went on to direct traffic, then went to the bar and then home.
Months went by and Miller’s behavior got worse. It was just over three years ago, he said, when his wife said she was going to take the kids on a play date and that afterward she wanted to talk. About 10 minutes after his wife had left the house, Miller recalled, there was a knock at the door. He opened it and was served with divorce papers. Finally, his wife had had enough.
This was Miller’s Alive Day number three.
After a lengthy stay in a bar, Miller became more and more depressed, later driving to a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. He took out his service revolver, pointed it at his head and thought about all of the Marines he couldn’t bring home. He thought about the people he couldn’t save as a police officer.
“None of this is realistic, but in my mind, I didn’t do my job,” he said.
“It was very quiet,” Miller continued. “On my pistol, there are two safeties. When a safety disengages, you hear a click. It was quiet enough for me to hear that first click, and all I thought was that if I squeezed a little harder, there would be no more pain.”
But then, he said, the strangest thing happened to him. Miller admitted to not being a super-religious person – “I believe in God” – but earlier that month, he had attended a Wounded Warrior Project event. At that time, he said, he knew nothing about the Wounded Warrior Project. “I thought it was just for those guys missing an arm or leg.”
While there, he met a man who had no legs doing pull-ups with a wheelchair attached to him.
So Miller sat in his car, gun pointed at his head, and thought about the guy at the Wounded Warrior Project.
“He didn’t quit; why should I?” Miller reasoned. “The hardest thing I ever did in my life was drop that gun and go home,” he said.
While dropping the gun was the physical reaction, more importantly, Miller finally realized he needed help. He checked into Heinz VA Hospital and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“I know that burying those demons was the last thing I should have done,” Miller said. “I should have reached out for help, but I didn’t do that. Now I have help through the Wounded Warrior Project. I work for them, and they have wonderful programs.
Miller learned that he couldn’t bury all of the horrible things that had happened to him in life, nor could he drink his way through a problem.
“I have to face the problem,” he told attendees. “Service to others before self is still there, but now I have to serve me a little bit before I can help others.”
Miller said that in the last year, he has lost eight friends to suicide. This is not the right way out, he said. “The right way is to stand up and say I have PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, and I need help,” he said.
“I’ve had my three Alive Days. I don’t want any more.” And through his efforts with the Wounded Warrior Project, he hopes other veterans don’t have any more of those kinds of days either.