A Soldier's Story
By Paul Harris
The Observer UK
Sunday 02 July 2006
A picture made him a hero. Then his life fell apart.
James Blake Miller
A photographer's lens caught James Blake Miller smeared with blood and dirt during the battle for Falluja. In his eyes, America saw the steely determination that would bring victory in Iraq; now stress and divorce have made him a casualty of the war.
Combat can change a life in a second. The snap of a sniper's bullet or the blast of a bomb will instantly end it or turn a healthy body into a maimed wreck. But for US marine James Blake Miller what changed his life was the sudden shutter click of a war photographer's camera.
On a rooftop in Falluja, Miller was captured in a picture that has become one of the enduring images of the Iraq war. It showed his wan face, streaked with mud and blood, in a moment of reflection. His eyes stared out, tired yet determined. From his lips drooped a cigarette, curling a wisp of thin pale smoke.
That moment saw Miller, an ordinary soldier from the hills of Kentucky, turn into Marlboro Man, an everyday American hero.
The image hit the world on 10 November, 2004, as US marines stormed into Falluja to try to end a war that was supposed to have finished more than a year earlier. It appeared on newspaper front pages and made the cover of Time.
Miller's image became a symbol of steely resolve, of weary-yet-determined struggle, of the toughness of the American fighting man having a cigarette break before finishing the job. It captured a moment when most Americans still thought the invasion of Iraq a worthy undertaking.
Now Miller is a different symbol in a different time. As the war has dragged on, Miller's life has collapsed in the face of post-traumatic stress disorder. He draws a disability pension for his condition and his personal life is a wreck. He suffers from nightmares, panic attacks and survivor's guilt. Despite the immense goodwill of a grateful nation, Miller has slumped into struggle and despair. Last week came the news that he and his childhood sweetheart, Jessica, were getting divorced.
Marlboro Man is no longer an icon for the American warrior ethic. He is a symbol of pain and suffering and the enormous problems endured by veterans returning home. He has become the public face of shell-shock. No longer the victor, Miller has become one of the war's victims.
In the Appalachian hills which Miller calls home, the word for grandfather is 'papaw'. Miller's step-papaw, Joe Lee, was a Vietnam veteran. In interviews Miller has described how Papaw Joe Lee would get drunk and tell war stories. Then Papaw would get upset and tearful at the memories of death and killing in Vietnam and eventually his wife, fearful of scaring the grandchildren, would tell him to be quiet.
It was classic post-traumatic behaviour, going undiagnosed. It was also a scene played out across America in the wake of Vietnam as hundreds of thousands of disturbed and troubled veterans returned home. Now those scenes are happening again as the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return to wives, husbands, partners and families, carrying psychological scars hidden by their apparently healthy bodies.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is not an easy condition to treat. It is tough to deal with and requires a wide range of possible approaches, on an individual's circumstances. Some will be 'cured' relatively easily. Others may take decades to deal with what they have seen or done in war. The symptoms are relatively common across the cases. They involve flashbacks, panic attacks and paranoia. A person's behaviour changes and sufferers can become violent to their loved ones. It destroys lives, often bringing on divorce, bankruptcy and suicide.
America's Department of Veterans Affairs has been caught flat-footed by the flood of sufferers. It estimates that it will have to treat 20,000 new cases this fiscal year alone. That is almost six times its initial estimate and comes after the amount of therapy sessions available for veterans has been cut by 25 per cent over the past 10 years. There are also signs the condition is left widely undiagnosed and sufferers are going untreated. One study showed that the Pentagon did not seek further treatment for eight out of 10 veterans showing signs of combat stress. Many veterans complain that their needs are ignored when they return. They say that, in the military, post-traumatic stress disorder is still seen as unmacho and seeking treatment for mental health issues as unmanly. 'There is still a stigma around psychological care. It is considered unmacho and malingering,' said Garett Reppenhagen, a former sniper and Iraq war veteran who works on veterans' issues.
Some believe the military's whole approach to the disorder is wrong, and that instead of dealing with sufferers who emerge from combat it should concentrate on mentally preparing its soldiers beforehand. That would be a policy of prevention, not cure. 'We teach these kids to fight, but we don't equip them well for the psychological aftermath. The time to do all this is in basic training,' said Dr Glenn Schiraldi of the University of Maryland who has written a book on the treatment of the disorder.
The story of how Miller became one of many sufferers is probably typical. It is only widely known because of the profile that becoming Marlboro Man gave him. Miller arrived in Iraq with his marine unit and was sent to the restive Anbar province. On 5 November, 2004, in the middle of a sandstorm, word filtered through that his unit was to join the attack on Falluja. The assault began three days later.
Two days after that, Miller's face was famous around the world. Not wanting to lose their new poster-boy, the US Marines command tried to have him pulled out of the fight. But Miller refused. He stayed and fought with his comrades. He has never fully described the events of the next few weeks, but has let slip details which are horrifying enough. There were ambushes and firefights. He has described his horror at seeing a cat make a home in the open chest cavity of a dead Iraqi. He lost his close friend, Demarkus Brown. Miller knows what it is like to look down a gun barrel at another human being and pull the trigger. 'You can make out a guy's eyes,' he told one interviewer.
After the war Miller took it as a personal mission to use his fame to highlight the stresses that veterans face when suffering with post-traumatic stress. He spoke out in the press and teamed up with the National Mental Health Association. He spoke to politicians on Capitol Hill in Washington. He became a force for not forgetting what America's returning veterans had gone through. All the while, he hinted at what was happening in his own life.
The forces that Miller spoke so passionately about were starting to destroy his own return home. During one meeting with Congressman Mike Michaud of Maine he hinted at his fears that he might end up hurting those he loved, including Jessica. 'Can you imagine waking up in the middle of the night to realise that you had harmed them in some way?' he asked Michaud.
Miller represents the new face of the American soldier - a face that bears the scars of war. It was not like that when he signed up. Before 2001 in places like Pike County, Kentucky, where Miller grew up, the US army meant a way out of poverty. It meant access to college. It meant the chance of travel and excitement.
That was why Miller joined the military. Deep in the heart of impoverished coal country there was no other way of affording the money to get the qualifications he needed to be a mechanic. But since 2001, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, signing up has meant combat. And even if a soldier emerges unwounded from a tour of active duty, he rarely emerges unscathed.
After his tour was up, Miller returned to Pike County and the tiny hamlet of Jonancy where his family had lived practically since the area was first settled by Europeans. The signs of trouble quickly emerged. Friends and relatives found him quick to anger. He had bad dreams where his fingers pulled imaginary triggers in his sleep. He jumped at car exhaust backfires. Jessica complained he would tighten his arm around her neck at night.
Once, on a trip to the county seat of Pikeville, he hallucinated that he saw the body of a dead Iraqi sprawled out on the ground. He took long and solitary motorbike rides, tearing up the tarmac on the back of a Harley, trying not to think about the war. He spoke of his guilt at having survived while many of his comrades did not.
'It is like a big guilt trip, day in and day out. I just lie there and rot,' he told one interviewer. It was classic survivor's guilt - a common emotion in many people who have survived traumatic experiences, whether it is combat or a train wreck. Those around him did not know how to deal with him.
'People often don't know what to do with these traumatised individuals,' Schiraldi said. 'They come home with these mental wounds and want to get things back to normal. But what they really need is a healing process. You bring these haunted memories with you.'
Miller was not given the chance to heal when his tour of duty in Iraq was over. Instead he was sent to New Orleans. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had left the city burning, flooded and being looted. Waiting offshore in a troop transport, it appeared to Miller as if he were returning to urban combat. It would be Falluja by the bayou.
When another marine in his boat made a whistling sound, like a rocket-propelled grenade, Miller suddenly blacked out. When he came to, he found he had assaulted the man, pinning him to the ground. He was honourably discharged on 10 November, 2005 - exactly one year after the photograph that made him famous was published around the globe. He was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress.
But America still saw him as Marlboro Man. The country could not let one of its heroes have an unhappy ending. When word of his troubles leaked out people started coming to visit, or writing to him and Jessica in Jonancy. They even began to send the couple money. One man drove all the way from Kansas on a motorbike and waited for him for two days in the hope of meeting him. Miller did not show up and the biker and his wife left behind a note. It read simply: 'It will be all right.' Eunice Davis from Pleasanton, near San Francisco, read about Miller in her local newspaper. Miller had made a comment that he and Jessica had never been able to afford a proper wedding ceremony. Davis took it upon herself to organise one. She rallied hundreds of donors and helped organise a lavish ceremony.
Miller and his blushing 'bride' took their vows anew. He wore his marine uniform. A huge American flag fluttered near by. Television news crews recorded the day for posterity and prime time. That was 3 June. For a moment it seemed America - and Miller - would get a happy ending. But it was not to be. Last Sunday, barely three weeks since the ceremony, came the news of a divorce. Post-traumatic stress was to blame.
It was not just the disorder that unhinged Miller's life. Undoubtedly the stress of unexpected and unwanted fame added to the problems. Miller joined a growing list of cultural icons emerging from Iraq and it is not an easy role to play, especially for those who do not choose it.
There was Jessica Lynch, the young woman soldier whose story of kidnap and rescue was used and abused by the Pentagon to create a heroic figure for the invasion of Iraq. There was steel-jawed Pat Tillman, the former American football star turned Army Ranger whose death in Afghanistan seemed to embody the noble causes of freedom and democracy until it was revealed the army had tried to cover up the fact he had been accidentally shot by his own side.
Being an icon is not easy. 'The impact on one's life is life-altering,' said Professor Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert at Syracuse University. Miller's life became public property. He became a focus for the psychological needs and desires of strangers. Complex events such as the war in Iraq are much easier for society to deal with if the focus is on an individual's story, yet Miller always seemed to express bafflement at his fame. How had a single image made his Kentucky face one of the most famous on the planet? There is little doubt that whatever chance he had of settling back into his old life in Pike County was reduced by having to do it all in the public glare. 'When you become a symbol your ability to live your old life disappears. It is not easy to be a metaphor,' Thompson said.
Miller remains a symbol. But it is no longer that of the tough-as-nails Marlboro Man. It is of the human cost of war. As the conflict in Iraq drags on into its fourth year, it is often remarked upon how little ordinary life in America has changed. There is no draft, there is no rationing, there is no reshaping of the economy to meet military needs. There are not even any extra taxes to pay for all the men and money being sunk into the conflict.
It is, in short, easy to ignore the fact that America is fighting at all. But now Miller's story is a reminder of the price that ordinary men and women are paying for the Iraq operation. He has disappeared into a private world to try to cope with his demons. He has asked not to be disturbed by the media and other outsiders. He just wants to deal with his problems and rebuild his life and, perhaps, his marriage too. 'I'm looking for time to figure out what exactly I need to do, not just for me and Jessica but for myself as well,' he told the San Francisco Chronicle, which has developed a close relationship with him.
Hopefully he can. For Miller is now a metaphor, not of steely resolve, but of pain and loss. He is a reminder of how war can destroy even those it does not kill. How it leaves behind a trail of victims, whether they are Iraqi civilians or a kid from the Kentucky hills.
Miller is proof that not all wounds received in combat can be seen by the naked eye.
Icons and Villains
US army supply clerk Lynch, now 23, was rescued by US special forces after being captured by Iraqis during the invasion in 2003. The first American successfully rescued since 1945 - and the first ever woman - she became a symbol of American martial heroism, but has since become a metaphor for government manipulation of the media after conflicting accounts emerged as to how and why she was rescued so dramatically from a civilian hospital. Debate mainly centred on whether Lynch was actually being held prisoner at all. She had been well treated by Iraqi doctors, and it is believed that no Iraqi soldiers were present in the hospital when it was raided by US forces. The military was later accused of treating the doctors like enemy forces and causing unnecessary damage to the clinic.
A professional American football star who abandoned fame and riches to join the elite Army Rangers, only to be killed in action, Tillman became a symbol of the self-sacrificing hero. However, when it emerged that his death had been caused by friendly fire, he became a symbol of the army's cynicism in exploiting the loss of one of its own soldiers. A series of investigations into his death has left many questions unanswered and lingering suspicions that the full truth has yet to emerge.
The young woman soldier featured in photographs exposing the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, notably a photograph showing her with an Iraqi prisoner on the end of a leash. At first seen as a symbol of American military brutality, she became viewed as a scapegoat after she was convicted of criminal behaviour while senior officers largely escaped blame. England came from an impoverished background in West Virginia and that background has fuelled attacks on army recruitment policies. Those who defended the military saw the attack on the young soldier as an example of unpatriotic and elitist behaviour. England has thus also come to symbolise a growing political and social divide in America.
The Abu Ghraib Man
The figure of a hooded man standing on a box and apparently attached to electrodes became an iconic image throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. Several papers, including the New York Times, identified him as a man called Ali Shalal Qaissi, but his true identity remains in doubt and the NYT has since retracted its story. Many Americans now regard the picture as a symbol of anti-American, anti-Bush media bias. It has also been used to recall the way in which Vietnam was lost on the home front and to draw parallels suggesting that the Iraq war may be lost in the same way.