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Capt. Dan Miller, a recovering alcoholic, enjoys his newest favorite beverage, coffee, in Itaewon.
Capt. Dan Miller, a recovering alcoholic, enjoys his newest favorite beverage, coffee, in Itaewon. (Jeremy Kirk / S&S)

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Capt. Dan Miller reached to his side to retrieve a blue poker chip he’d dropped, a token that lives in his pocket these days.

Soon, the 36-year-old 17th Aviation Brigade officer will be able to trade that chip for a metal coin, a sign from his abuse counseling program that he is on his third month of sobriety after a destructive five-year bout with alcoholism.

Among its scars: The affable Miller, a 13-year veteran, may be booted from the service after being convicted in a July court-martial. He is in the midst of a divorce; most of his friends have abandoned him. He is in a time of self-reflection, surveying the battle damage during a painful after-action review. He wants his mistakes to be a lesson for other soldiers.

“The Army did exactly what they needed to do,” Miller said. “In God’s economy, there’s nothing wasted. We learn from our experiences, as painful as they may be.”

On a recent day, Miller ran into another captain who greeted him with a smile. The two had gotten drunk together at the beginning of their Korea tour, Miller explained.

The two officers looked at each other and laughed. It was a laugh not of humor but of irony.

Miller wrote recently about his journey through alcoholism in the Oct. 3 Morning Calm newspaper, the weekly U.S. Forces Korea publication. It was a frank, autobiographical account that outlined a long, bad trip.

“This has been a tremendous shake-up,” he said. When you become sober and begin “to peel away the layers of character defects, you start to come up with this emotional garbage, you really look at yourself … I had these character defects and these emotional problems the entire time I’ve been in the Army. Right now, I’ve got a lot of things to deal with. I’ve got to peel away those layers and deal with issues.”

For years, drinking daily helped mask such inconvenient issues — if he drank enough. Eventually “enough” meant up to half a liter of rum on the rough days, a six-pack of beer on the good days. He rarely left his house. He said his heavy drinking started around 1998, continuing through the birth of his first child, Joshua, and through an unaccompanied tour in South Korea that began in January 2002.

Miller was what’s called a functional alcoholic, commanding a company in the 164th Air Traffic Services Group. He was relieved of duty in May 2003 — but he said that even before that action, his soldiers knew something was wrong with him: dark circles under his eyes, narcissistic behavior, lying, manipulation.

Miller is open about his faults; he said he’s well aware of the abuse of his command.

But the alcohol soothed it all, a chemical sedative that numbed internal demons.

“It felt great,” Miller said. “That’s the physiological attraction to drinking. It’s funny — I would have to take couple of stiff drinks just to make it down to Itaewon to be around people. It was almost like that first deep breath of the day. I’d just go make a big tall rum and coke and, ‘Ahh.’”

Miller said he would run through his ration limit for hard alcohol — three bottles a month — near the beginning of each month. Then he’d ask friends to buy booze for him. If that failed, he bought small, airline-sized bottles of hard liquor, knowing he could get six a day under the ration limits.

And eventually, his behavior led to actions so egregious they prompted hearings and charges leading to a general court-martial. On July 14, he was convicted of adultery, fraternization, conduct unbecoming an officer and willfully disobeying a superior officer’s order. Technically, it makes him a felon, although the charges were military-specific.

Miller declined to discuss details of his conviction, saying his appeal still is pending.

But he said his moment of clarity came after starting a substance abuse program and meeting the other people there. At first, he said, he resisted the program and resisted admitting he had a problem.

Miller was in denial, said Maj. Olivia Williams-Turner, assistant to the clinical director of Yongsan’s alcohol treatment program. Williams-Turner said she is not a clinician but has been in the Army for 19 years and seen soldiers go through many difficulties.

The captain, she said, seemed at first to be worse off than anyone she’s dealt with. “He was emotionally, spiritually and physically rock-bottom,” Williams-Turner said. “The prognosis for him was not that great.”

Miller’s first meeting with his substance abuse group was rough. “I felt like I didn’t belong there, and I was better than the program and I was just going through the motions to keep up appearances, mostly,” he recalled. “Then a few weeks into the program I realized I did belong there, and if I didn’t put a lot of work and effort into it I wasn’t going to get anything out of it.”

Williams-Turner said she believes as long as Miller puts himself in a treatment program when he returns to the States, he is capable of recovering.

“I guess he has a great spirit,” Williams-Turner said. “When he fails, he get back up and continues to march. He’s come a long way. I think he’s going do OK. That’s our hope.”

Part of his journey, Miller suggested, was deciding to discuss his trials in print in hopes they might dissuade others from the temptations that led him to make bad, life-eroding choices. His new resolve, he said: Have genuine friends, be a genuine person, be a better father to his 5-year-old son, overcome emotional conflict and most of all, no drinking.

“It’s not so much a new start as it’s the beginning of a new end,” Miller said. “I’m rewriting the story.”

And he’s holding on to that poker chip — his visible symbol of his hope that story will have a better ending.

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