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Medal of Honor: Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

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The damage assessment patrol composed of eight Special Forces operators and about 15 Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers was about to conduct its search of the fortified enemy position that had just been destroyed when the quiet pre-dawn gloom was shattered by a battle cry: Allah Akbar!

The shout – “God is great!” – came from the shadowy figure of an insurgent just 20 feet away who had suddenly stepped out from behind a boulder. As if on cue, the mountainside in front and on both sides of the patrol erupted in AK-47, PKM heavy machine gun, and rocket-powered grenade (RPG) fire, driving the men to the ground. Mission leader Maj. Robert Cusick, who was near the rear of the patrol, later said, “It was almost like standing in the middle of all the fireworks on the Fourth of July.” As the hail of enemy gunfire descended on the group, Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, in the point position, shot and killed the insurgent with a burst from his squad automatic weapon (SAW). Shouting for the rest to fall back, Miller began laying covering fire.

Miller ignored the odds. To buy his comrades time to retreat out of the kill zone, he was taking the fight to the enemy.

Then, Miller did something that surprised both friend and foe – he charged. Approximately 40 insurgents were dug into positions immediately above and around him. Another force, later estimated to contain at least 140 – possibly as many as 200 insurgents – was dug in farther up the slope.

Miller ignored the odds. To buy his comrades time to retreat out of the kill zone, he was taking the fight to the enemy.

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller in Afghanistan. Miller, just 24 when he died, was a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. U.S. Army photo

Twenty-four-year-old Miller was born on Oct. 14, 1983, in Harrisburg, Pa., the second of eight children born to Maureen and Philip Miller. Before he had even reached his first birthday, young Robert was a kid on the go. He began walking at age seven months and was soon driving his mother to distraction, dragging chairs around so he could clamber up onto countertops.

When he was five years old, his family moved to the western Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., where he grew up. Miller was active in the Boy Scouts and participated in a wide variety of school and summer sport activities, including baseball, basketball, track, gymnastics, and band. By the time he entered senior high school, he was a star gymnast and co-captain of the team, at one point helping lead it to a fifth-place finish in the state tournament.

Maureen knew that it was only a matter of time before her son joined the service.

Named after his grandfathers, both World War II veterans, Miller grew up hearing military service stories of his father, grandparents, and ancestors going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. His first friends were Cambodian refugees and their tales of atrocities committed by the brutal, communist Pol Pot regime had a major impact on him. Given the family’s history and the way that Miller acted whenever a military subject came up in conversation, Maureen knew that it was only a matter of time before her son joined the service. Her only real question was: Which branch?

That answer came in 2003, shortly after the family moved to Oviedo, Fla., just northeast of Orlando. By this time, Miller was a freshman at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, but after completing that first year, he decided he wanted to become a Green Beret. In August, he enlisted in the Army as a Special Forces trainee. After graduating from Infantry Basic Training and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., in January 2004, he entered the Special Forces Qualification Course, graduating in September of that year. He graduated from the Special Forces Weapons Sergeant Course in March 2005. On Sept. 30, 2005, after his graduation from the Special Operations French Language Training Course, he was promoted to sergeant and received the coveted Special Forces Tab. That same day he was assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C. Two years later, beginning in August 2006, he spent nine months deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller was killed by Taliban insurgents Jan. 25, 2008, while protecting his Operational Detachment-Alpha 3312 teammates during combat operations near the village of Barikowt, Nari District, Konar province, Afghanistan. He was a member of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. Afghanistan photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Corey Dennis

During this deployment, which lasted from August 2006 through March 2007, Miller displayed a keen interest in Afghans and their culture. Though he had received a “D” in high school Latin, Miller had a gift for languages and soon learned the local tongue, Pashto. He shared tea with the locals and gained their trust to the point where he was allowed to join them in playing buzkashi, the Afghan version of polo, in which the ball is the headless carcass of a goat and goals are scored by hurling the carcass across the goal line.

Miller returned from this deployment in late March 2007 and upon his return to the United States, took advantage of his leave to catch up on things with family and friends. Among the new decorations on his chest were two Army Commendation Medals for valor during combat. But, when pressed by his mother to talk about what happened during his deployment, he downplayed things, telling her he “was bored a lot of the time.” In addition to visiting his parents, he returned to his hometown of Wheaton, where he attended the wedding of one of his high school buddies and visited his high school coaches and his high school girlfriend. After his furlough was over, Miller entered Army Ranger School and, upon successful completion of the grueling two-month leadership course, received his Ranger Tab.

When pressed by his mother to talk about what happened during his deployment, he downplayed things, telling her he “was bored a lot of the time.”

In October 2007, he was back in Afghanistan, this time as a weapons sergeant in Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 3312 stationed at Forward Operating Base Naray in Konar, or Kunar province.

Konar province, located in northeast Afghanistan about 50 miles north of the Kyber Pass, is one of the most dangerous regions in the war-torn country. Its mountainous terrain, rugged even by Afghan standards, and strategic location along the Pakistan border have historically made it an ideal refuge and power base for insurgents and others living outside the law. One such insurgent stronghold was the Gowardesh Valley. For two years, Afghan National Army forces had tried, and failed, to wrest control of the valley away from the well-armed and well-fortified insurgents who had built its defenses to a point where they nicknamed it “the Valley of Death.”

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller. U.S. Army photo

In late January 2008, ODA 3312 and a unit of ANA soldiers were briefed on a combat reconnaissance mission designed to root out safe havens located in the ridges of a part of the valley known as Chen Khar. They would be supported by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that would provide real-time reconnaissance and A-10 Warthogs and F-15E Strike Eagles assigned combat air support duty. As darkness fell on the night of Jan. 24, Cusick and his combined force got into their up-armored Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs) and headed north into the valley.

The road they were on was bordered on their left by a steeply rising slope, and on their right, by the Gowardesh River. A snowstorm had recently swept through the valley, dropping more than a foot of snow, making driving even more treacherous. Twice the convoy had to stop and explode road-blocking boulders. The positions of the boulders told the men that they had not fallen, but had been placed on the road, a typical insurgent ambush tactic. After the first such encounter, Miller, the only one of the Special Forces members who spoke Pashto, was ordered to assemble an ANA team, clamber partway up the slope, and shadow the convoy as it slowly advanced.

Within seconds Miller and his troops were exchanging fire with the insurgents.

They reached their objective, a suspected insurgent compound, without incident. Miller and his ANA troops fanned out and took up security positions while the others searched the compound. It was at about 1:00 a.m., Jan. 25, when a report came in from the UAV controller, who had spotted a group of about 15 to 20 insurgents beginning to gather in a fortified position on the other side of the river who were preparing to attack. Miller immediately jumped into his GMV’s turret and swung into position the vehicle’s Mk. 19 40 mm automatic grenade launcher. Within seconds Miller and his troops were exchanging fire with the insurgents. Because it was still dark, he was able to clearly see the enemy’s muzzle flashes and identify for the joint tactical air controller (JTAC) the insurgent positions. The JTAC quickly plotted their grid coordinates and relayed the information to two Warthogs and two Strike Eagles flying above. They responded with four strafing runs and three precision-strike bomb drops. At one point during the air strikes, Miller’s grenade launcher broke down and he was unable to repair it. This forced him to move to the vehicle’s M240B machine gun mounted on the rear of the GMV, where he renewed his suppressive fire.

When return fire from the enemy positions ceased, Cusick assembled a battle damage assessment team composed of eight Special Forces operators and about 15 ANA troops. Miller would take the point position and lead the ANA troops. Cusick and the other Special Forces operators would bring up the rear. All the Special Forces men were wearing portable communications units complete with headsets so they could maintain contact. To reach the site, the team had to advance several hundred feet down the valley, cross the Gowardesh Bridge, and then double back to the enemy’s position. It was shortly after the team reached the site that the hidden insurgent emerged, shouted, and all hell broke loose.

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

A personal photo of Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller. Miller was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Oct. 6, 2010 for his heroism and valor while serving in Afghanistan in January of 2008. U.S. Army photo

Miller’s initial charge knocked out a couple of enemy positions, temporarily eliminated ground fire from the right flank, and succeeded in drawing to himself the bulk of enemy fire. As soon as he heard that the rest of the team had found cover, Miller began ducking and dodging along the steep, broken terrain, shooting and calling in enemy locations. Suddenly, an insurgent off to Miller’s right rose and fired at the Green Beret. A bullet hit him in the upper torso between the top of his armor and his right armpit. Miller turned and fired a burst from his SAW, killing his attacker. At about the same time, Cusick fell, seriously wounded by a bullet that hit him near the left collarbone.

Ignoring his own wound, Miller started crawling forward, continuing to fire at the enemy. The SAW is a man-portable machine gun with a high rate of fire, and the most powerful weapon a foot patrol can bring into battle. But its distinctive muzzle flash in the predawn hours made Miller an easily identifiable target and the focus of return fire so intense that at times he was completely obscured by the smoke, dust, and debris from the impacts of the small arms, machine gun, and RPG fire on the ground around him.

Though the distance between Miller and the rest of the team was not great, it was enough of a space that for all practical purposes Miller was single-handedly taking on the enemy.

Though the distance between Miller and the rest of the team was not great, it was enough of a space that for all practical purposes Miller was single-handedly taking on the enemy. Yet he refused to back down even after he started running low on SAW ammunition and had thrown his last grenades. Then, 25 minutes after he had charged up the slope, Miller’s SAW went silent. The Special Forces operators called out to him, and tried to raise him on their communications units. But their attempts were in vain. At some point, a bullet had entered his left side, just above his body armor, mortally wounding him.

The rest of the team, meanwhile, had managed to get into protected positions, return fire, and radio for help. At different times, they tried to recover Miller’s body, but enemy counter fire was too intense. An hour and 45 minutes later, a quick reaction force arrived, accompanied overhead by helicopter gunships, medevacs, and other air assets. Seven hours after the battle had begun, the fighting was over, the insurgents in the immediate area had been dealt a crippling blow, and the body of Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller was on its way home. The after-action report credited Miller with killing more than 16 insurgents and wounding at least another 30, but more importantly saving the lives of the rest of the team, because his action gave them the time to find cover.

Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller

President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Honor posthumously to the parents of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, father Phil, and mother Maureen Miller, Oct. 6, 2010, during a ceremony in the White House. Miller received the honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan on Jan. 25, 2008, displaying immeasurable courage and uncommon valor, eventually sacrificing his own life to save the lives of his teammates and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers. U.S. Army photo by D. Myles Cullen

On Oct. 6, 2010, in a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, and presented the decoration to his parents, Philip and Maureen. Of the four Afghanistan conflict Medals of Honor awarded to date, three were given to men who fought in Konar province.

Medal of Honor Citation
Oct. 6, 2010

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller distinguished himself by extraordinary acts of heroism while serving as the Weapons Sergeant in Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3312, special Operations Task Force-33, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force–Afghanistan during combat operations against an armed enemy in Konar Province, Afghanistan on January 25, 2008. While conducting a combat reconnaissance patrol through the Gowardesh Valley, Staff Sergeant Miller and his small element of U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers engaged a force of 15 to 20 insurgents occupying prepared fighting positions. Staff Sergeant Miller initiated the assault by engaging the enemy positions with his vehicle’s turret-mounted Mark-19 40 millimeter automatic grenade launcher while simultaneously providing detailed descriptions of the enemy positions to his command, enabling effective, accurate close air support.

Following the engagement, Staff Sergeant Miller led a small squad forward to conduct a battle damage assessment. As the group neared the small, steep, narrow valley that the enemy had inhabited, a large, well-coordinated insurgent force initiated a near ambush, assaulting from elevated positions with ample cover. Exposed and with little available cover, the patrol was totally vulnerable to enemy rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapon fire. As point man, Staff Sergeant Miller was at the front of the patrol, cut off from supporting elements, and less than 20 meters from enemy forces. Nonetheless, with total disregard for his own safety, he called for his men to quickly move back to covered positions as he charged the enemy over exposed ground and under overwhelming enemy fire in order to provide protective fire for his team.

While maneuvering to engage the enemy, Staff Sergeant Miller was shot in his upper torso. Ignoring the wound, he continued to push the fight, moving to draw fire from over one hundred enemy fighters upon himself. He then again charged forward through an open area in order to allow his teammates to safely reach cover. After killing at least 10 insurgents, wounding dozens more, and repeatedly exposing himself to withering enemy fire while moving from position to position, Staff Sergeant Miller was mortally wounded by enemy fire. His extraordinary valor ultimately saved the lives of seven members of his own team and 15 Afghanistan National Army soldiers. Staff Sergeant Miller’s heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty, and at the cost of his own life, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations: 2011-2012 Edition.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...