The Marlboro Marine

James Blake Miller went to work at a motorcycle repair shop whose owner presides over the local chapter of a motorcycle club.  Video (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

James Blake Miller was in a world of pain, and I figured I should be by his side.

A veterans' treatment program in West Haven, Conn. -- arguably the best in the nation -- offered hope. Moe Armstrong, a pioneer in vet-to-vet counseling, had heard of the Marlboro Marine's troubles and sent him feelers about coming for a visit. Despite my reservations about getting too involved, I had flown from Los Angeles to Kentucky to help Miller grab this lifeline. I coaxed him into my rental car and we headed north.

I questioned myself. Was this the right thing to do? For Miller, yes. But for me? What awaited us at the end of this journey? I caught Miller's eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, droopy and lifeless. He hadn't slept well, and a long road led from his home in the Appalachian coal country to New England.

I had taken a photo of Miller for the Los Angeles Times during the battle of Fallouja in November 2004. He was leaning against a wall, a cigarette dangling from his lips. To my surprise, the image became iconic, capturing a sense of the front line in a young Marine's face. It appeared in dozens of newspapers and on TV broadcasts, giving Miller a moment of fame.

Back home, he had struggled to put Iraq behind him. He was medically discharged from the Marines, suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder. He suffered flashbacks, drank heavily and retreated into a shell.

We had stayed in touch, casually at first. Then something deeper had developed between us. I was one of the few people who could reach him, who understood what he had been through.

I'd flown east in June 2006 after Miller's wife called me, asking for help. During the long drive to Connecticut, it began to sink in that despite our 25-year age difference, Miller and I had a lot in common. We both had religious upbringings. We both went to public schools and ran with reckless crowds. We'd both found acceptance through sports.

Like Miller, I'd faced obstacles growing up. Despite my good grades, my high school counselor saw only a Filipino immigrant in homogeneous Olympia, Wash., and lumped me in with the underachievers. Instead of college catalogs, she offered me Army recruitment brochures.

The military would be better than "setting chokers," she said, referring to the equipment used to harvest clear-cut timber off steep mountainsides. It's dangerous work -- like mining coal in Kentucky.

As dusk descended, Miller and I drove on, talking about movies, music, motorcycles and cars. We talked about Iraq, where our lives had intersected.

On assignment for The Times, I was embedded with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Miller was a radioman with the unit.

He recalled intense training as the Marines prepared to enter Fallouja. There was bluster, bravado. Some of the men talked about notching "kills."

On the eve of battle, they became reflective and subdued as they wrote last goodbyes. Their letters home basically said: If you get this, I am dead.

Miller was haunted by the brutality of the fight.

I remembered that, of course, but my mind had also stored a consoling image, one of transcendent serenity.

I told Miller about it as we drove north. The morning sun was streaming gloriously through the broken windows of the shattered Khulafah Rashid mosque in Fallouja, where Marines had taken refuge during the battle. The light splashed over deep red prayer rugs where Marines sprawled in fitful sleep, their packs serving as pillows, their dusty boots laced tight.

Rubble littered the floor, and dust floated up through shafts of light. Copies of the Koran lay open amid shards of glass. I recalled leaning against a towering pillar in the vast space, breathing the tranquillity.

Miller talked about killing the enemy.

"To try to live with that . . . how do you justify it, regardless of what your causes are or what their causes are?" he said.