A famous fight, an unsung hero

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Pfc. Jessica Lynch is the celebrity soldier of the Iraq war. Pfc. Patrick Miller, a member of the same company captured with her in a ferocious firefight, remains one of its unsung heroes.

Lynch, Miller and others in their convoy mistakenly drove into the vipers' nest of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, early on a March morning and were encircled by Iraqi fighters. In the ensuing swirl of chaos and shouting, wrong turns and unrelenting fire, Lynch's Humvee crashed, and she lay unconscious among her dead and dying comrades.

It was Miller, a 23-year-old Army welder from Kansas, who single-handedly took on several Iraqis, manually slamming rounds into his assault rifle and firing as they prepared to lob mortar rounds at Lynch and other soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company.

"He's one of my heroes," said Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who was wounded and leaning against her truck as Miller dashed past her up a dusty road toward the Iraqi mortar pit. "His actions may have saved my life."

Miller was the sole member of the unit to receive the Silver Star, one of the military's highest awards for valor. Nearly 130,000 Army troops served in the Iraq war and its aftermath, but only 86 Silver Stars had been awarded through mid-September, according to the Army Personnel Command. Lynch and other members of the 507th received Bronze Stars, a notch below the Silver Star.

"Shoshana yelled at him, 'Get down, Miller! Get down! You're going to get hit!'" said another soldier, Spc. Edgar Hernandez, describing how Miller charged toward the Iraqis. Hernandez recalled hearing automatic fire from Iraqi AK-47s and the single shots of Miller's M-16 rifle.

As a prisoner of war, Miller badgered his interrogators for three weeks, singing an off-key rendition of country singer Toby Keith's anti-terrorist song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." And he fooled them.

The Iraqis pressed him to explain a series of numbers and code words scratched on a piece of paper inside his helmet. Prices for power-steering pumps, he told them. The soldiers tossed the paper into a small campfire, unaware that they had destroyed information vital to an enemy: radio frequencies for an invading unit.

"He's a Pfc. in the Army and he exposed himself without hesitation to the enemy to save his comrades," said Col. Heidi V. Brown, who commanded the Army task force in Iraq that included Miller's unit and who wrote his medal ciTation, based on interviews with U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. "It doesn't get more heroic than that."

All the witnesses corroborated the tale of Miller's charging toward a mortar pit and shooting at the enemy, said Brown in a telephone interview, though no one could agree on a precise number of enemy dead. An Army investigative report said it could have been as many as nine. "Absolutely, he killed some Iraqis," Brown said.

A myth is born

The story of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, began as a piece of faulty information. An intercepted Iraqi radio transmission referred to a blond American woman who repeatedly fired on her attackers, despite bullet and stab wounds.

The inaccuracy was passed on to reporters, and the myth of a slightly built clerk who morphed into a fierce warrior quickly circulated. Her legend only grew when Special Operations soldiers stormed a hospital in early April and rescued her. But to this day, according to Army investigators, there is no known evidence that she ever fired her weapon or killed any Iraqis.

Lynch, who left the Army with a medical discharge this summer, never portrayed herself as a hero. When she returned home to West Virginia in July, she thanked those who rescued her and said she regretted that some in her company never made it home.

"Patrick is a brave soldier, risking his life as he did to save others. I am proud of his courage," Lynch said Friday, in remarks relayed through Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. The publishing house signed her to a $1 million book deal for her wartime experiences titled I am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.

She will also be the subject of a network TV movie, with a young Canadian portraying her. An industrial area in Dallas has been converted into a fictional Nasiriyah -- complete with Saddam Hussein bas-reliefs.

Early this month, ABC News personality Diane Sawyer scored the first on-air interview with Lynch. It is scheduled for November, the same month her memoir will arrive in bookstores.

There are no agents, books or movie deals for Miller, whom the Army transferred last month from Texas to this wind-swept military base hard up against the forested mountains of the Rampart Range in central Colorado. In May, he was grand marshal at an Armed Forces Day parade in Topeka, Kan., up the interstate from Valley Center, his rural hometown of about 5,000. Several weeks later he threw out the first ball at a Kansas City Royals baseball game.

Miller appeared on the NBC News show Dateline last month with four other prisoners of war from the 507th -- minus Jessica Lynch -- though his story was lost among the recollections of his comrades. One of his few interviews was with a small newspaper in Alabama, when he traveled there this summer for an Army event.

Gangly and bespectacled, with a loping gait, Miller speaks in a broad Kansas drawl that enlivens his casual grammar and the occasional "dang." His lower lip bulges with an ever-present wad of chewing tobacco.

Johnson, his fellow POW from the 507th, couldn't recall anything particularly special about Miller when they were stationed together at Fort Bliss, Texas, in the months before they headed off to war. "A down-to-earth country boy," Johnson remembered with a laugh. "He likes his chew. That's all I remember about Pat: He had that chew in his mouth."

Miller now spends his days toiling in a motor pool as part of the 2nd Company of the 43rd Area Support Group. Because most of the unit's heavy equipment has been shipped over to Iraq, his welding torch has been cold. Recently, he has been cutting the grass and slathering brown and white paint on the building's interior walls. Every so often, a fellow soldier will quiz him about his service in Iraq.

A $25,000-a-year private first class, Miller lives in a modest three-bedroom townhouse on base with his wife, Jessa,, and two children, 4-year-old Tyler and 14-month-old Makenzie. The children are in day care while his wife works making glasses for LensCrafters. One day, Miller hopes to rise to a higher enlisted rank -- an Army warrant officer -- and oversee a maintenance shop, perhaps putting in 20 years.

He brushed aside talk of heroism in an interview and recounted his actions in a matter-of-fact tone, as if the conversation had turned to the coming season for Kansas State football or needed repairs on his brown and dented 1989 Chevrolet Corsica. All but the most personal elements of his account were confirmed in other interviews by The Sun and the Army and official Army documents.

"I was doing what I get paid to do," he said. His Army training "kicked in" when he faced enemy fighters.

But the fact that Miller remains an unknown grates on Johnson and some in Miller's family.

"Jessica's a wonderful girl, and we're happy she's OK," Johnson said. "But it was Patrick; it wasn't Jessica. His weapon was working. He was doing everything possible. Patrick deserves so much, and he's not getting the recognition. He's still a private first class. He hasn't even been promoted."

'A miracle he's alive'

Miller's mother, Mary Pickering, agreed. "Nobody's focusing on it. If it hadn't been for Pat, some or most would have died, including Jessica Lynch," Pickering said in a phone interview. "It's a miracle he's alive."

On resentment from her fellow soldiers that she has grabbed all the limelight, Lynch said: "I won't ever forget the brave soldiers of the 507th. I think about them every day."

Miller did not seem destined for battlefield heroics when he enlisted in the Army in May of last year. At basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he scored an unimpressive 26 on the M-16 qualification on the rifle range, enough to earn a "marksman" badge, the lowest qualifying designation. At Fort Bliss, he honed his skills as a welder, a trade he learned at a community college in Kansas.

Before he raised his M-16 rifle toward that mortar pit in March, he had not fired his weapon since the previous August at the practice range.

At the same time, Miller has a strong sense of self-reliance and responsibility, say those who know him. He endured his parents' divorce when he was 6 and became a father while in his late teens, marrying a girl he met while a cook at a burger joint in Kansas.

"Most of the stuff I've done in life, I've done myself," he said. "The ability to be a good leader is built while you're growing up."

There is also a quiet tenacity and stubbornness to Miller. He will quickly tell you that he doesn't much like Army officers, or any kind of authority figures, for that matter. And those personality traits helped him in the harrowing days after the 507th left Camp Virginia in Kuwait and rumbled north into the vast and lonely desert of Iraq.

The battle at Nasiriyah

The lights of Nasiriyah were twinkling in the distant blackness as the 33 soldiers in the 18-truck convoy rolled along. There was an assortment of heavy vehicles, from Humvees to tractor-trailers and 2 1/2 -ton rigs. Miller was far to the rear inside the cab of a 5-ton wrecker pulling a water trailer.

Miller and the other soldiers assumed the illumination marked their planned staging area. But when the convoy crossed the Euphrates River and headed deep into the city, it soon dawned on the 507th that they were on the wrong road.

The Army later determined that a "navigational error" -- caused by the combined effects of "operational pace, acute fatigue, isolation and harsh environmental conditions" -- led the company to miss the route that was meant to take them around Nasiriyah and onto a highway north toward Baghdad.

The sun was just rising on March 23 when Miller spotted men carrying AK-47s strolling along Nasiriyah's narrow streets. The long line of American military trucks rolled through an Iraqi checkpoint, and two men with pistols simply watched them pass. Other armed men on the street waved.

"I was worried but not super-worried," Miller said. Then the company commander, Capt. Troy King, drove up alongside in his Humvee and appeared nervous. They would have to turn around and head south to find the right road, the captain said.

"We're in an unsecured area. Stay alert. Keep your eyes peeled," King told them, Miller recalled.

The Kansas welder grew even more skittish when he saw a small Iraqi civilian truck with a .50-caliber machine gun attached driving back and forth beside the convoy.

"Just watch it and make sure it doesn't do anything," said Sgt. James Riley, who sat beside Miller in the wrecker.

Suddenly the tell-tale pop, pop, pop of automatic weapons fire erupted.

"We're getting shot at!" Miller shouted and slammed his boot into the gas pedal. The truck surged forward, and the engine whined, the speedometer quickly arcing from 40 mph to 65. But the convoy soon overshot a turn and was forced to drive off the road.

Two soldiers in a 5-ton tractor-trailer, Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan and Sgt. Donald R. Walters, were stuck in the soft sand. Miller screamed for Sloan, a 19-year-old logistics specialist from Cleveland, to get into the wrecker. When Miller looked around for Walters, he was nowhere in sight.

The Army report later said, "There is some information to suggest that a U.S. soldier that could have been Walters fought his way south of Highway 16 toward a canal and was killed in action." The report also said, "The circumstances of his death cannot be conclusively determined," although his body was found in a shallow grave with bullet and stab wounds. Walters' family in Oregon believes that the blond, wiry soldier may have been mistaken for Jessica Lynch in the intercepted Iraqi radio transmission that referred to a blond American woman heroically battling attackers.

As Miller wheeled his wrecker around, he could spot Iraqis on the barren plain about a mile away, hurriedly setting up artillery and mortars and shouldering rocket-propelled grenade launchers. "We had to go through the kill zone to get out," he said.

In front of Miller was a Humvee driven by Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, according to the Army's investigative report of the battle. First Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy rode in the front passenger seat, firing his M-16 rifle out the window. Two other soldiers, Spc. Edward Anguiano and Sgt. George Buggs shot from each side of the rear seat with heavier weaponry, M249 Squad Automatic Weapons. Lynch sat between them.

Shells and grenades sailed toward the convoy and shattered with deafening explosions just 30 yards away from the line of American trucks. Bullets began to ping off Miller's rig from all directions. He reached out to adjust his side-view mirror just as a bullet shattered the glass. He then ducked close to the dash as he drove, while Riley loaded M-16 rifles in the middle seat and Sloan sat next to the window.

A bullet zipped into the cab and slammed into Sloan's forehead, just under his helmet, killing him instantly. "Never said a word," Miller said of Sloan.

The withering fire finally struck the wrecker's transmission. The rig slowed, then rolled to a stop, barely making it over the bridge spanning the Euphrates River. Miller turned to see several white Iraqi taxis on the road behind them, with gunmen spilling out and training their AK-47s on the fleeing American soldiers.

Grabbing his ammunition vest and rifle, Miller jumped from the wrecker. He and Riley raced forward to reach the others in the convoy, several hundred yards up the road. A tractor-trailer with Johnson and Hernandez in the cab had swerved off the road and stopped, while the Humvee driven at a high speed by Piestewa had crashed into the truck's rear, leaving only a tangle of metal and bodies. All five soldiers inside the wreckage appeared dead or nearly so. Miller saw Lynch's foot twitch and assumed she was in her death throes.

Miller and Riley stumbled ahead and found Johnson and Hernandez, both wounded, huddled in their truck. Riley, whose weapon had malfunctioned, tried desperately to grab an M-16 rifle from the demolished Humvee but was unsuccessful. He then tried to fire the rifles of Johnson and Hernandez, but they jammed, according to the Army's investigative report. Many of the company's rifles jammed because of the dusty conditions and lack of maintenance, the Army later found. The sergeant told his wounded subordinates to take cover, then stayed with them to protect them.

Miller, meanwhile, spotted an Iraqi dump truck and raced toward it, hoping to commandeer it and drive the survivors to safety. As he ran, he could see the smoky tails of rocket-propelled grenades sail past him. Bullets kicked up dirt on the road.

Miller reached an earthen berm just across the road from the Iraqi truck. Then he noticed a group of Iraqis in front of the dump truck, some 50 feet away, setting up a mortar tube. A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the far side of the berm, and Miller rolled out the other side. When he crawled back inside and peered over the top, he could see an Iraqi ready to drop a mortar round into the tube.

But Miller's rifle was jammed. A spent round would eject, but the new round would only go halfway into the chamber. Miller slammed his palm into a lever on the side of the gun, and the bullet slid into place. He raised his rifle and fired. The Iraqi collapsed in a heap before he could fire the mortar round.

Riley, in a telephone interview from Aberdeen Proving Ground where he is now an instructor at the Ordnance Center and School, said Miller "was behind a berm returning fire while the berm was being shot at. ... He'd pop up and fire." Bullets and RPG rounds "were smacking into everything all around."

Miller said he was never scared or even thinking about what he was doing, just reacting. His Army training returned: how to breathe, aim and squeeze the trigger. "The only thing I was thinking was if they don't get a mortar loaded, they can't blow them up," Miller said.

The remaining Iraqis jumped up and started firing their rifles at Miller, all missing. But their attack was never coordinated by having one take on Miller while the others launched mortar rounds at the remaining Americans.

One by one, Miller, by his count, shot seven Iraqis as each popped up and tried to work the mortar. After it was over, a large bruise spread over Miller's palm from the constant slapping against the rifle.

When the mortar pit fell silent, Miller turned around and saw an armed man running along a tree line behind him, shielded by two women. He shot toward them, and they all folded into the ground.

Then the two women suddenly rose and dashed away, with the man lagging behind. Miller aimed once more and squeezed the trigger. The man fell forward. It was Miller's final shot of the war.

The attack on the 507th lasted a little over an hour. Of 33 soldiers in the convoy, 11 were killed (including two from another unit), six were captured and nine were wounded, including some of those captured.

Weeks of captivity

More than two dozen Iraqi men, all in civilian clothes and carrying assault rifles, surged toward Miller. He dropped his M-16 rifle in the dirt and raised his hands. One man punched him in the mouth, splitting his lip, while two others angrily pulled at his arms. Still another tried to hit him with a stick. A frenzied argument broke out in Arabic, and Miller realized they were talking about his fate.

"I thought they were going to shoot," he said. "I was just scared."

The group hustled Miller off to a nearby house, just as a car pulled up with uniformed Iraqi officers. They pulled off Miller's vest and helmet, fishing through his pockets and grabbing his cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

The Iraqis found a slip of paper inside his helmet, three series of four numbers. Each line had a code word, including "Vulture" and "Scavenger." They were the battalion's frequencies for emergencies and MedEvacs.

"I told them they were prices for power steering pumps," he said, holding his clenched hands in front of him to mimic driving. "Drive, you know?"

Power steering had been on his mind. Before leaving for Iraq, his Chevy Corsica blew its power steering pump as he placed it in storage. The Iraqis tossed the paper into a small fire in the middle of the floor.

Pulled from the house, Miller was placed in a Mitsubishi truck, with five Iraqis, for a silent drive to downtown Nasiriyah. He was paraded in front of a military headquarters building, a small crowd cheering as he was led inside. Taken into a small room with greenish white walls that held a couch, chairs and a desk, he was reunited with Hernandez and Riley as well as another member of the 507th, Spc. Joseph Hudson.

A man with a TV camera came in and identified himself as a reporter for Al-Jazeera, Miller remembered. An Iraqi officer took a seat behind the desk, coaching the reporter in Arabic about what to ask.

The Al-Jazeera tape, which appeared on Iraqi television, with excerpts later on American TV, shows a nervous and bewildered Miller in a sweaty Army-issue T-shirt. His eyes dart about, and he swallows hard. "Why do you come?" barked the questioner in heavily accented English.

"'Cause I was told to come here," Miller said, stumbling over his words. "I was just following orders. I came to fix broke stuff."

"You came to kill Iraqi people!" the questioner demanded.

"I'm told to shoot only if I'm shot at," Miller replied plaintively. "They shot at me. I shot back."

Although clearly frightened, Miller recalled that he actually felt better that there would now be televised pictures of him and his fellow soldiers. The tape would be seen by the Americans, he believed. "President Bush would tell them they're responsible," he said.

They were all led into another room, where Miller once again saw Johnson. "She was in pain. Shot in both ankles," he said.

The five soldiers from the 507th were loaded into a Toyota 4Runner, which turned north toward Baghdad, several hours away. All during the ride, the Iraqis hollered at the soldiers in a mixture of English and Arabic. "Why do you come here!" they kept shouting.

Miller and the others were blindfolded and led into a prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. Their uniforms were exchanged for yellow-and-white pajamas. Each soldier was placed in an 8-foot-by-6-foot cell with no furniture.

The only opening in the cell was a small, porthole-like window eight feet above the floor where a shaft of light streamed in. Miller was able to tear a piece of metal off the rusty cell door. He scratched three names on the wall: Jessa. Tyler. Makenzie.

Over the next three weeks, the American soldiers would be moved to seven locations. Each time, he would carve his wife's and children's names on the wall with the metal shard he hid in his pocket. "I wanted to make sure if I didn't come home and the Americans came they would see them," he said quietly, fearing he would die by the Iraqis or an errant U.S. bomb. "You never know if they'll kill you or your own people will kill you."

Johnson said Miller told her he was especially worried about never again seeing 8-month-old Makenzie. "She wouldn't even remember him," Johnson said.

On a diet of boiled chicken scraps, rice and hard bread, Miller came down with diarrhea and lost weight. All the while he alternated between defiance and despair, yearning for his family and having a few angry monologues with God. Inside his cells, he at times belted out the lyrics to "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."

"This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage. And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A...."

"Sit down! Shut up!" the Iraqi guards would shout whenever he sang.

Johnson and the other soldiers later joked that Miller's croaking rendition was a form of torture. "He sang it all the time," she said.

Through it all the Iraqi guards never mistreated them, Miller said, and shared cigarettes with their captives. Miller was puffing on a Viceroy one April morning at a private house outside Tikrit when a door burst open with a shout, "Get down!" The soldiers dropped to the floor and a squad of Marines charged into the room. "If you're American, stand up!" one of the Marines shouted.

The prisoners all stood and were quickly moved to an armored vehicle. No one said a word. Finally, when they were inside a helicopter, thumping toward an American airbase at the southern Iraqi city of Talil, Miller turned to Johnson and muttered, "We're really going home."

Returning to normal

Miller walked briskly toward his brick and wood townhouse complex, set on a treeless patch of prairie at the edge of Fort Carson. The small back yards are wreathed in chain-link fences. Children dashed about while young mothers sat and chatted on the stoops. A small blond child teetered down the concrete path. Miller bent over and lifted the child above his head. "Hello, Makenzie!"

Opening his front door, Miller strolled inside the tiny living room, where one wall is a patchwork of framed citations. Prisoner of War Medal. Purple Heart. Silver Star. "PFC Miller served heroically in combat," reads the Silver Star citation. "PFC Miller dismounted the vehicle and began firing on a mortar position that he determined was going to open fire at any minute on the convoy."

Set in the middle of the wall is a large framed picture with the words 507th Maintenance Company. There are nine head-and-shoulder portraits of soldiers in the unit who perished in Iraq, all cast in a ghostly white.

Miller flopped on the plaid couch. He said he wants to put the entire Iraqi episode behind him and get on with his life. Play with his kids. Work on his car. Complete the paperwork for the warrant officer program.

He is asked about the fame of Lynch and how her celebrity has eclipsed his heroics. He summed it all up with a shrug. "She's female. I'm male. It's expected of me," he said. Still, like some others in his company, he harbors a gnawing resentment that Lynch has emerged as the only story in the 507th.

"It just gets me how she gets credit for something she didn't do," he finally said. "We were all in the same unit."

Miller may lack national celebrity, but he has found a small, not insignificant, following at Fort Bliss, an Army post in the west Texas desert where Brown, the colonel who vetted his Silver Star, is stationed. She said she uses Miller's story as a leadership teaching tool for her officers. Recently, she gathered together 80 of them and told his tale in vivid detail.

Closing her presentation, she eyed her audience. "Would you do the things he did? Would you? Could you?"

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