WASHINGTON, DC – I honestly believe what was going through his head was just concern for the team, because I think that’s what we were all feeling that night…and so I think that was probably going through Robby’s mind first and foremost.”
-Staff Sgt. Eric Martin, Operational Detachment Alpha 3312
While no one will ever know for sure what was going through Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller’s mind that frigid January night in 2008, Martin’s words clearly reflect why Miller would forfeit his life to protect his brothers-in-arms during a fierce battle on the other side of the world.
More than two years later, Oct. 6, 2010, in the East Wing of the White House, President Barack Obama presented a posthumous Medal of Honor to the Miller Family for their son’s actions-actions that allowed seven of his Special Forces teammates and 15 Afghan soldiers to escape an ambush kill zone.
In his comments, the president highlighted Miller’s accomplishments as a special operations Soldier, saying that merely 1 percent of the nation’s 300 million people wear the uniform, and only a select few of those earn the Special Forces tab.
“Today, it is my privilege to present our nation’s highest military decoration-the Medal of Honor-to one of these remarkable Soldiers, Staff Sergeant Robert J. Miller,” Obama said, adding that courage was a defining factor in Miller’s life.
“It has been said that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point,” Obama said. “For Rob Miller, the testing point came nearly three years ago, deep in a snowy Afghan valley. But the courage he displayed that day reflects every virtue that defined his life.”
The president said Miller was a true leader, as demonstrated by two previous commendations for valor during his first tour in Afghanistan.
On his second tour there, Miller-Robby to his teammates, Family, friends and teachers-was killed after volunteering to serve as point for a night patrol with Operational Detachment Alpha 3312, in the Chenar Khar Valley near the Pakistan border, Jan. 25, 2008. He was just 24.
Around 9 p.m. on Jan. 24, ODA 3312 received word that a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle feed had picked up enemy fighters armed with RPGs moving into a house. Miller’s unit was ordered to link up with Afghan soldiers and proceed into “ambush alley,” traveling as far as possible in their uparmored Humvees, then dismounting and moving toward the compound on foot.
Once the unit was able to confirm the threat, the team’s Air Force joint tactical air controller would radio for a few 500-pound bombs. After the bombs were dropped, the team would move in and conduct a battle-damage assessment-at least that was the plan.
Staff Sgt. Eric Martin recalled that as his team moved up the mountain in their vehicles. The 300-foot sheer cliffs on both sides of the road didn’t allow much room for protection or counter-attacks, because their guns were already angled to maximum elevation. To make matters worse, the convoy came across two boulders at different intervals that had to be blown with C4.
“I was thinking, OK, we’re gonna get hit from here, so we were trying to be as quiet as possible, until the explosion, obviously,” he said. “The second boulder was nearly within sight of the objective, so we had to come to a stop again and blow that boulder. I believe that’s when the enemy was tipped off.”
The Afghan soldiers and ODA 3312 moved on until they were in position to begin the attack. Then, through their night-vision devices, Martin and his team noticed enemy fighters emerging from a house and taking up new positions.
When the firefight began, Martin thought everything was going well because the unit hadn’t received any effective fire, and nothing impacted close to the team. As the unit returned heavy volumes of fire, it seemed pretty one-sided-like the enemy was trying to “bug out” of the area, he recalled.
“Nothing unusual about it,” Martin said. “It became unusual after the initial bombs were dropped and we’d opened with heavy fire.” The unit then sent a dismounted element, with Miller on point, ahead of the vehicles.
“This was Robby’s second trip over and he had picked up Pashto on the first deployment. He had a talent for languages: He knew French, German, a little bit of Russian,” Martin added. “He just had a gift, which is why he was out front talking to the Afghans and in the position he was in, because the ANA soldiers had moved out too quickly and we needed to slow them down to gain command and control.”
The dismounted element led the convoy across a bridge. Still, everything seemed good. No shots had been fired, and more than a few bombs had been dropped, so they assumed they had taken out the enemy, until the sound of a Russian-built PKM machine gun split the air, answered by an M249 squad automatic weapon and M4 carbine fire. The entire hillside erupted into muzzle flashes and chaos.
Martin recognized the high-pitched cracks of the SAW, and knew Miller-who had left base without a suppressor and was rolling heavy with extra 200-round 5.56 mm drums attached to his kit-was behind the trigger.
“He didn’t care about the weight…that mentality he had, that characterized the whole team…. ‘We’re gonna roll heavy; we’re gonna make sure we’re ready to fight and that we’re prepared for it,'” said Martin.
The Special Forces teammembers found themselves in a close-quarters ambush less than 50 feet from Taliban fighters. The team’s leader, Capt. Robert B. Cusick, was wounded almost immediately.
That’s when Miller took command, taking out a machine-gun nest, always moving forward, firing constantly and throwing grenades. His teammates, meanwhile, moved in reverse from the kill zone with their wounded captain, radioing for a medevac helicopter and working to regain control of the situation. It was the last time any members of Miller’s team saw him alive.
“I think he wanted to provide that extra firepower for his buddies so they could get out of the kill zone,” said Cusick. “He bounded forward; we moved back…. He saved lives that day. It was just in his personality…he was a go-to guy, very reliable, very eager and one of the better in-shape guys on the team.”
Cusick said Miller was always quick to volunteer and to take on more responsibility. He recalled Miller’s final night, when the team picked up the Afghan soldiers: “As soon as I said we’re good to go, he went over and introduced himself to the Afghans, speaking Pashto to get them up for the mission.”
Aside from his physical capabilities, knowledge of tactics and desire to speak fluent Pashto, Miller served as the detachment’s resident gemologist in his off time-he was the guy his teammates deferred to when they wanted to make sure a gemstone was a good deal, added Cusick.
“After he was killed, the team passed Robby’s gem detecting kit back to his Family…that meant a lot to them,” Cusick said.
Several of those gems have since been mounted, one of which Miller’s mother Maureen wears in a necklace. A few others were turned into earrings worn by his sisters in memory of their oldest brother.
Martin, his teammates and the captain believe that Miller’s concern for the team is what drove him, though no one will ever know what Miller was thinking when all hell broke loose.
“I think in combat the biggest fear I have, and I think the other guys have, is letting down the guy to the left and right,” Martin said. “It’s about doing the right thing and not letting our brothers down.”
Philip Miller, Robby’s father, said his wife, three other sons and four daughters knew a large part of Robby’s responsibility was working and training with local nationals, and they were vaguely aware of some of his day-to-day activities. But the Family didn’t really hear too much about combat actions, because Robby didn’t want to worry them or divulge sensitive information about what he was doing.
Between deployments, at his parent’s home in Ovieda, Fla., he would share photographs and video clips with his Family-he loved the scenery of Afghanistan and talked about his passion for learning Pashto, and sipping tea and interacting with the Afghans.
“All of us wonder if we can perform the same way, and keep our head and do what we have to do in an extreme situation like that, and take a calculated risk that you know you’ll have to take and which may mean you won’t survive,” Philip Miller said. “You start to look at all the stories of what people do, including the people in this same firefight, and then you realize how remarkable it is that they’re keeping their heads under incredible, intense, dangerous conditions, and doing the right thing. It’s amazing to imagine anybody could behave like that.
“I’d like everybody to remember that he loved what he was doing and he was very good at it; he was extremely enthusiastic about it and it was very clear he really embraced the work, the mission and the people he worked with-American and Afghan,” Miller’s father added.
“When we learned about the details of what Robby had done to receive the Medal of Honor nomination, we weren’t surprised, and we also weren’t surprised at his reaction (during battle), because that was the sort of person he was. That’s what his training taught him to do and be,” said Miller’s mother, Maureen. “I think the fact that he died doing something that he loved and thought worthwhile was an important factor in helping us deal with the situation.”
Miller always wanted to be a Soldier. Maureen said he enlisted for a variety of reasons, including his sense of adventure and his belief in the importance of military service-something that runs in their family. She also credited Miller’s deep appreciation for the freedom and opportunities available in America-something he learned early on, after hearing stories from childhood friends who were Cambodian refugees.
“Receiving the Medal of Honor on behalf of our son is obviously extremely important to us, because it represents the gratitude of the country to one of their Soldiers who performed so well and effectively in combat,” Miller’s father, who was also a Soldier, said. “Our son will become part of the written history of the United States.”