The war within

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Marine in iconic image now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
by Jim Warren

LONG FORK, Ky. The steep mountainsides in western Pike County are painted in the drabbest of winter browns and grays now, but already there is a feeling in the air that the land is ready to break out with spring color in a few weeks, bringing new life, new hope.

Maybe that’s a good omen for a young man back home after surviving the meat grinder of Iraq but still struggling to cope with the psychological shocks of all he’s seen and done, shocks that ultimately cut short his career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Millions of Americans remember him only as the Marlboro Man the grubby, exhausted Marine lance corporal with a cigarette dangling from lips in a famous 2004 photograph from the battle for Fallujah. The picture has become one of the iconic images of the Iraq war.

Around Pike County, though, he’s just plain Blake Miller, 21 and a civilian again. Today, he’s intent on getting over the black-outs and the nightmares, and building a new life with his new wife, Jessica…

     

And the young man whose image became a symbol of the war now grapples with his own feelings on the conflict and questions the continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

Today, he doesn’t look much like that 2004 photograph. He’s clean-cut, with brown hair and a thin mustache, still close to his high school football playing weight of 155. He still smokes a little over a pack of Marlboros per day but has cut down from the five packs or more he was burning through every day at the height of the Fallujah battle.

He still carries some shrapnel scars, and some scars you can’t see.

I could tell you stories about Iraq that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, he said. And I could tell you things that were great over there. But that still wouldn’t tell you what it was actually like. You had to be there and go through it to really understand.

Miller said he began having problems soon after returning from Iraq early last year sleeplessness, nightmares, times when he would blank out, not knowing what he was doing or where he was. Then, just after Hurricane Katrina last fall, Miller was sent to New Orleans, where he and other Marines waded through flooded neighborhoods, recovering bodies. Somewhere along the way, all the stresses piled up, and they boiled over a few days later while Miller was on board the USS Iwo Jima, a Navy ship on hurricane duty off the Gulf Coast.

I was coming out of the galley, when this sailor made a whistling noise that resembled the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade, Miller said. You had to have heard that sound to duplicate it. I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he was just poking fun at Marines. But something just triggered and I flipped out.

They said that I grabbed him, threw him against the bulkhead and put him down on the deck, with me on top of him. But I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

There had been some other incidents as well. Eventually, three military psychiatrists diagnosed Miller as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a set of serious psychological symptoms that afflict many who have been in life-threatening situations. The Marines, concluding that Miller could be a threat to himself or to his teammates in any future combat situation, granted him an early but honorable discharge.

Miller became a civilian Nov. 10 on the 230th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1775, and the one-year anniversary of the date when the photograph from Fallujah hit the newspapers.

At first, I was irate because I wanted to stay in, and make a career out of it, he said. I liked being a Marine; it was the only thing I had known for the better part of three years. But I decided that this is what I’m stuck with, so I’ve got to deal with it.

Now, Miller regularly sees a therapist (the government is picking up the bill) and he says he is doing well. He says he wants the public to better understand post-traumatic stress disorder and realize that those who have it don’t deserve any public stigma.

The biggest reason I did this interview is because I want people to know that PTSD is not something people come down with because they’re crazy. It’s an anxiety disorder, where you’ve experienced something so traumatic that you were close to death.

A lot of Vietnam vets suffered from PTSD, but nobody took the time to understand or help them. Now, some of those guys are living on the street. You look at their situation, and you think about what they did for their country and where they are now … that hurts.

He has gone through other changes as well, including doubts about the war.

When I was in the service, my opinion was whatever the commander in chief’s opinion was, he said. But after I got out, I really started thinking about it. … The biggest question I have is how you can make war on an entire country, when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It’s as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew up some stuff, and Iraq started a war against us because of that.

I agree with taking care of terrorism. But after terrorism was dealt with, the way it was after Fallujah, maybe that was the time for us to pull out. That’s just my opinion. It blows my mind that we’ve continued to drag this out.

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