On anniversary of his death, MoH recipient a model for Army special operators
By Drew Brooks | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 25, 2016
First, there was just one insurgent. A single man jumping from behind a boulder, screaming "Allahu Akbar!"
Staff Sgt. Robert Miller killed the man instantly.
Then, the valley erupted.
More than 140 enemy fighters, holed up in fortified positions overlooking Miller's 3rd Special Forces Group and its Afghan allies, faced the soldiers on three sides.
The soldiers, trapped in the open terrain, had little chance to respond. Some of the enemy fighters were a mere feet away, unleashing hell with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and PKM machine guns.
That day, Jan. 25, 2008, could have been the last for the Green Berets and their allies, according to some of the men who were part of the fight.
But as the ambush began, Miller took charge.
Already leading the way for the soldiers, he shouted for his team to fall back to safer positions.
"Bound back," he repeated.
But Miller didn't heed his own words. He charged ahead.
As he moved up the mountain rock, scaling snow-covered terrain, he drew the brunt of the enemy attack.
His teammates recall losing Miller in a wash of dust and rock, kicked up from the hailstorm of enemy fire.
Even out of sight, the Green Beret could be heard on his radio, calling out enemy positions.
Sometime during the seven-hour battle, Miller died.
His sacrifice that day earned him the nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
It also cemented his legend in the special operations community, particularly at Fort Bragg.
On the eighth anniversary of his death, Miller remains the only Special Forces soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan, and the only Fort Bragg soldier to be so recognized in the Global War on Terror.
His valor is part of lessons taught to new special operations soldiers at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, and it has been included in courses at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
On Fort Bragg, a small memorial for Miller sits off a walkway near the 3rd Special Forces Group headquarters, a building that was dedicated for Miller in 2014.
The walkway, lined with memorials for those 3rd Special Forces Group soldiers lost in Afghanistan, is regularly decorated with American flags, flowers, coins and bottles of alcohol — tributes to the strong bonds between those lost and those still serving.
Monday, at least some of the Special Forces soldiers who served with Miller will gather at his grave in Oviedo, Fla.
Maj. Robert Cusick, who was Miller's team leader as a captain in Afghanistan, said the gathering will follow a pattern that has unfolded over the last few years.
"For the first five, 10, 15 minutes, we're standing around. It's silence," Cusick said. "It's somber when we're there."
But eventually, someone will break that silence, and the anniversary becomes something more — a celebration of the man they know as "Robbie."
"That's how he would have wanted it," Cusick said.
If it wasn't for Miller, at least some of the men who continue to honor his sacrifice wouldn't be alive.
No one knows for sure why Miller did what he did, Cusick said. But one thing is clear:
"It was for guys like me," he said. "I've got my life and family to thank him for."
Cusick, who was injured shortly before Miller's charge, said the soldier saved the lives of Afghans and Green Berets.
"The (ambush) was overwhelming," he recalled. "They were feet away — like standing next to your feet. The situation escalated in seconds."
"There's a lot of us that are thankful," Cusick said.
Miller's mother, Maureen, also will visit her son's grave Monday with their family.
Some years, the two groups meld into one, each side sharing stories of a young man so full of life.
"It's just nice," Maureen Miller said. "That does mean a lot. We do appreciate that they remember him."
Cusick said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the Jan. 25, 2008, mission before the ambush.
"It was a standard approved combat patrol," he recalled. And for the first hour or two, the fighting was "all one way."
Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha 3312 was based at Forward Operating Base Naray, in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
On that day, the soldiers and their Afghan partners moved into Gowardesh to clear the valley of insurgent safe havens. The valley was believed to have several high-value targets and was known for enemy fighters operating freely amid a natural fortified chokepoint.
At first, the combat was fairly one-sided, Cusick recalled.
Miller, already leading an overwatch element on look out for a potential ambush, used a MK19 40mm automatic grenade launcher to mark insurgent positions for his teammates and supporting aircraft, which strafed the waiting enemy with 30 mm rounds and precision-guided GBU38 munitions.
When his weapon broke, Miller — the team's weapons sergeant — switched to an M240B machine gun while directing the movement of Afghan soldiers to support the attack.
Miller was the only American who could speak Pashto, a language used by Afghan soldiers fighting alongside the Green Berets.
After the dust settled, he led that force across a bridge and toward the targets to assess the damage.
That's when the shouting insurgent signaled the start of the ambush.
Miller's patrol was "completely vulnerable, in the kill zone and without cover in a complex ambush with insurgent fighting positions located to the front (East), the left (North), and the right (South)," according to officials.
The soldiers directly behind him broke formation to bound downhill, away from the ambush.
Miller, now alone, shouted for others to follow them.
Then, he turned and charged the enemy, single-handedly providing the needed cover fire for his team to carry the wounded allies to safety, including Cusick.
Military officials credit Miller with killing more than 16 insurgents and wounding more than 30 others before his death. In all, more than 40 enemy fighters were killed and 60 wounded in the seven-hour battle.
As news of Miller's valor filtered to them, Maureen Miller said the family was not surprised.
Miller had always been loyal and caring, she said.
His teammates would recall him as being full of life, a "go-getter" who was athletic and well-liked among the force.
"He wasn't afraid of taking challenges," Maureen Miller said.
Those challenges were an accepted part of his duty, she said, explaining how Miller would have been embarrassed by the attention his valor continues to receive.
"He'd be the first person to say he didn't deserve it, to say he was just doing his job," she said.
But Miller's importance to Green Berets can't be exaggerated, Cusick said.
"He's absolutely a big presence," he said.
When soldiers learn of heroes, they mostly learn of men from past generations, old-timers who demonstrated their valor in World War II or Vietnam.
But in Miller, soldiers have a hero who is instantly relatable. He's not a picture in history books, he's a young man not unlike themselves.
"Robbie is the new generation," Cusick said.
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3567.
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