WASHINGTON — Looking up at the high walls of the snow-covered Afghan valley, Staff Sgt. Robert Miller knew that his patrol might be walking directly into an ambush. That’s why he insisted on being up front, his teammates said.
It’s also what cost him his life.
On Jan. 25, 2008, Miller’s patrol of 22 U.S. and Afghan soldiers was ambushed outside of Gowardesh by a force of 120 enemy fighters. Troops there said Miller bore the brunt of the attack, then drew even more fire in an effort to help his men drop back to safety.
Even after being shot through both sides of his chest, he continued to return fire and toss grenades at the enemy.
“He definitely saved lives that day,” said Staff Sgt. Nick McGarry, a close friend who served alongside Miller in the Special Forces for three years.
On Wednesday, the White House will posthumously honor Miller for his heroism by presenting his family with the Medal of Honor, only the third servicemember to be awarded the honor for actions in Afghanistan.
In a statement last month, Miller’s parents remembered him as an "energetic, curious, always-active child" with a sense of adventure that led him to the Army.
The 24-year-old was a surfer and mountain biker who could speak fluent Spanish and almost-fluent Pashto. McGarry, who met Miller in Special Forces school, said Miller was always looking for ways to loosen up his team before they headed out on a mission.
"He was very intelligent, but he was very lighthearted too, always goofing around," McGarry said. "He liked to be active all the time, and he wanted to do the hardest thing possible."
Miller deployed to Afghanistan twice with Army Special Forces. In January 2008, his team was conducting combat reconnaissance patrols near Gowardesh, a hostile region in eastern Afghanistan where 18 months earlier Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti earned a Medal of Honor after losing his life while trying to save a fallen comrade.
McGarry said Miller always volunteered for a thankless or dangerous task. "He always wanted to lead from the front," he said. "That’s just the way he was."
The team arrived at a river before dawn and spotted enemy fighters massing in a nearby compound. Army officials said the soldiers fired on the compound, then called in air support to destroy the structure and any remaining fighters.
Problems arose once the team moved in for a battle damage assessment, McGarry said. The team walked about 800 meters up the rocky, snow-covered river bank to the Gowardesh Bridge, while Miller translated security assignments for the Afghan troops. As they approached the site of the air strikes, he ordered the Afghans into an overwatch position, and took the lead for the march into a narrow valley.
An enemy fighter lurked behind a boulder until Miller was less than five meters away, then opened fire. Witnesses said Miller killed the man instantly, but the gunfire signaled fighters hidden along the valley walls to begin their assault.
"Once the ambush kicked off, we were all engaged," McGarry said. "Our team leader got injured pretty immediately. The whole time over the radio, Sgt. Miller was yelling at everyone to bound back."
But the heavy fire from above pinned down the U.S. troops. The constant bright flashes from Miller’s squad automatic weapon made him the prime target for the insurgents, so he pushed forward while ordering the others to move back to an area with more cover.
"I looked to my right, to see where (Miller) was, and saw him charging enemy positions," McGarry said. "He attacked the entire south flank, engaging probably 60 insurgents by himself. He took the fight to the enemy. That kept their pressure off of us."
Miller’s moves let the rest of the squad retreat and regroup, but left him fighting in the open nearly half a football field away from his team.
He charged one insurgent machine gun position and killed five fighters. He tossed grenades into two others, and continued peppering ambush positions with gunfire before attempting to take cover.
As he moved, an insurgent shot Miller through his right side, finding an area not covered by body armor. Critically wounded. Miller returned fire and killed the man.
Witnesses told Army investigators that the RPG and small-arms fire hitting around Miller was so intense that they could not see him, only dirt and snow being kicked up from the ground.
Miller kept shouting information on enemy positions over the radio, but was struck by a second bullet under his left arm. McGarry said when his teammates heard his radio go quiet and his weapons stop firing, they knew he was dead.
The troops fought for nearly two hours with the entrenched enemy forces before they could recover Miller’s body. Several other U.S. and Afghan troops were wounded, but Miller was the only casualty.
Army officials credited Miller with killing at least 16 insurgents and wounding 30 others.
McGarry said even though the Medal of Honor process had taken more than two years, to the men who served alongside Miller, it was a foregone conclusion.
"It’s kind of closure, for us," he said. "He’s an example of what America stands for. He was the epitome of what a Special Forces soldier is, the epitome of selfless service. He was willing to do everything and anything for those soldiers around him."