Outside the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., a bronze statue of a Special Forces soldier stands guard, his weapon pointing skyward and his boot crushing a serpent. He’s there to protect a black marble wall emblazoned with the names of 1,134 fallen comrades.
The solemn roll call reflects the diversity that is America: McDowell, Park, Domeij, Van Aalst, Calero and Kitkowski to name a few. The display is as simple as each man’s final mission was harrowing. And it beckons you to begin imagining the circumstances under which each of these silent warriors sacrificed his life in the pursuit of freedom.
Toward the bottom of one of the wall’s panels is engraved the the name of Robert J. Miller. The Army knew him as SSG Miller, a staff sergeant. His family and friends back home knew him simply as Rob.
What most Americans don’t know is how this man with the common name ended his life with the most uncommon of valor.
Alone and wounded on a frozen hill in the Afghan mountains, Miller held his position in the midst of a spectacular firefight in January 2008, allowing his reconnaissance team to escape to safety after it was ambushed by Islamist insurgents.
Miller was shot almost immediately under the arm pit when the firefight began, but he did not relent. He expended all of his grenades and ammunition to “cover” his team members during their flight to safety before a second shot mortally wounded him.
Each of Miller’s other fallen colleagues on The Wall holds similar untold stories of heroism. But today – as I launch this new column designed to educate Americans about the military’s elite Special Forces – I want to tell this one soldier’s story in its entirety. The reason, if you will indulge, is simple.
You can’t begin to understand the capabilities, tactics and sacrifices of America's special operators until you first understand what type of man yearns for such a mission and what type of family produces a soldier of such selflessness.
Rob Miller enjoyed a storybook youth growing up in Wheaton, Ill. The second of eight children, four boys and four girls, he was born into a devout Catholic family and a cohesive community. Rob’s mother, Maureen, speaks Russian fluently after doing her undergraduate study in Moscow. His father, Phil, an engineer, served in the Army in West Berlin and speaks German.
Rob was exposed to foreign influences almost immediately; his mother taught English to Cambodian refugees. From a very early age he demonstrated qualities, which we as Americans value, promote and hope our children will possess. He practiced his Catholic faith, he progressed through the ranks of Boy Scouts, demonstrated discipline in gymnastics and displayed a confident self-reliance.
Maureen recalls the time her first-born son stubbornly insisted on solving his math homework according to his own formula. Mom tried to coax him to the school solution, but to no avail. He insisted on his own method to the point of tears and never capitulated.
The instinct to protect manifested early, too. At a young age, Rob and his little sister became separated from the rest of the family at a Chicago museum. Once located, the security guard told the Millers that Rob had looked after the frightened girl the entire time.
Many years later while stationed at Fort Bragg, Rob would flash that protective streak again when an elderly woman suffered a health emergency. Rob came to the assistance of the octogenarian, a German widow of a World War II vet. He calmed her and drove her home. But his assistance didn’t end there. Long afterwards, he continued to mow her lawn and check in on her well-being.
After a year of college, Rob joined the Army Special Forces through the program known as 18X. Special Forces recruits usually come from within the ranks of other Army units. But the 18X program, limited to 100 recruits per year, targets young men with no prior military service directly into the Special Forces if they pass all of the requirements, selection and training.
Rob quickly impressed his team leader. “He was reliable, willing to learn, smart, physically fit, witty, an excellent weapons guy and just an all-around great person,” Sergeant Major Pat Rotsaert recalls.
And there was another quality that stood out. After finishing his own tasks, Rob would always help his teammates complete theirs before calling it quits for the day.
Rob’s team deployed to Afghanistan in August 2006. In less than a month, the team was ambushed just a half mile from where Rob’s life would eventually end 18 months later. Many such engagements followed, Rob surviving and learning from each.
By the time the team rotated back to Fort Bragg, Rob had received two Army Commendation Medals for valor. Sensing that he could use a little more seasoning and training, Rotsaert persuaded Rob to go to Ranger school, even traveling to Fort Benning to pin on Rob’s Ranger tab, a gesture of respect and pride from a senior NCO.
By January 2008, Rob and his team, ODA 3312, were back in Afghanistan’s Gowardesh Valley. Rob had a knack of making friends and positive impressions among the local Afghans he encountered. It wasn’t an easy task: the Nuristani tribes that live in the Valley are among the most hostile and xenophobic of the Afghan people. For centuries these fierce mountain people resisted conversion to Buddhism and Hinduism and fought wars against Muslims, preferring to worship their own pantheon of nature spirits. Alexander the Great and Tamerlane are but two of the conquerors who could not subdue the Nuristani.
Nevertheless, Rob won friends by showing them videos of snowboarding and telling them that their remote valley could one day become a tourist attraction. Rob particularly ingratiated himself with the locals by taking up the sport of Buzkashi. This is the violent national sport of Afghanistan where opposing teams of men on horseback seek to carry the carcass of a dead sheep or goat to the other’s goal line at the end of the field. There are no rules and riders regularly beat and whip each other, resorting to nearly any act to steal the dead carcass from an opponent and ride in the opposite direction.
After Rob’s death, several women in a nearby village wove a memorial carpet for him. His interpreter, Ibrahim, carved an elaborate wooden plaque saying, “You are not forgotten,” and signed, “Your friend, Ibrahim.” Both mementos hang in the Miller’s home in central Florida as does a photo of Rob on a wild-eyed Buzkashi horse in the middle of a Nuristani village.
On the night of Jan. 25, 2008, ODA 3312, led by Captain Bob Cusick, was ordered on a combat reconnaissance mission to check on enemy activity in the Chen Khar area. A mixed force of Afghan and U.S. Special Forces, totaling 25 in all, set out after dark in the bitter cold. They arrived at their target area, a natural choke point with high ridges rising steeply from the narrow river valley. Suddenly, the patrol was attacked by a group of about 100 insurgents.
Cusick and another American were seriously wounded early in the firefight, and the ailing captain ordered his forces to withdraw to a more defensible location. As the team’s point man, Miller surged forward into the gunfire, engaging several enemy positions located above and on three sides with his Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a light machine gun with a high rate of fire.
As he moved forward, an insurgent jumped up and shot Rob in the arm pit. Rob killed the attacker. Continuing to crawl forward through the snow and engaging the enemy on all sides, he attracted fire toward himself, allowing the rest of the Americans and Afghans to retreat to safe cover and administer first aid to their wounded.
For approximately 25 minutes, Rob continued firing and calling in the locations of enemy positions so they could be attacked by air support. After throwing three hand grenades and expending all of his ammunition, Rob was wounded a second time.
Two fellow sergeants embarked to rescue Rob. When they reached their wounded colleague, Rob looked up briefly with a smile, then expired.
In all, Rob killed 16 insurgents and wounded 30 others by himself, holding his ground until U.S. air attacks and a quick reaction ground force decimated the remaining insurgents.
Cusick, now a major, remembers the night poignantly. “Every day when I dry off after my shower I see my scars and thank Robbie,” he says
During Rob’s funeral on Feb. 2, 2008 at the family’s church in central Florida, a pair of eagles appeared high above the church and circled several times before flying off together to the west. Rob Miller was Special.
For his actions, in the Gowardesh Valley, SSG Miller was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award. Rob’s parents and siblings, accompanied by members of ODA 3312, accepted the award on Rob’s behalf at a White House ceremony on Oct. 6, 2010.
To view the battlescape go to: