The Troubled Homecoming of the Marlboro Marine
Blake Miller can’t stand cats. He didn’t always hate them, but that was before Iraq; before he fought in the battle of Fallujah; before the first enemy soldier Miller killed lay, rotting in the street for three days, his remains picked over by a hungry cat that had crawled inside the dead Iraqi’s hollowed-out chest. Miller’s life divides like that, into then and now. Before November 9th, 2004. Before the photograph.
On that day, as Miller paused for a smoke during a lull in the fighting, a photographer from The Los Angeles Times captured the battle-weary Marine with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Miller’s face was smeared with soot and sand and blood and war paint, none of which could camouflage his bewilderment and exhaustion. The image was soon plastered all over the news, appearing in more than 150 publications worldwide and earning him the moniker “Marlboro Man.” Overnight, the photo made Miller an unwitting icon, a symbol of the indomitable spirit of U.S. troops, the heroism and virility of the American fighter. The New York Post ran the shot – later nominated for a Pulitzer Prize – under a simple headline: SMOKIN’.
That was then. These days, Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller spends much of his time sitting on the floor of the run-down trailer he keeps as a residence behind his father’s house in the tiny coal-mining town of Jonancy, Kentucky (population 297). This is his favorite spot in the trailer, where he reclines against an easy chair whose upholstery has turned a dingy nicotine brown. From here, Miller can anticipate any possible threat, keep an eye on all avenues of approach an enemy might take. As cigarette butts overflow in the ashtray and empty beer bottles collect around him, he silently cycles through procedures the Marine Corps drilled into his head: defend, reinforce, attack, withdraw, delay. He knows it’s only seven steps to the front door, but he worries whether his truck has enough gas to make an escape. He wishes someone had told him that “there may come a time when all that shit you learned, you might not be able to turn it off.”
Since returning home from Iraq three years ago, Miller rarely sleeps more than once every few days. When he can get some sleep, he makes sure he’s got a gun under his pillow. His entire life has been thrown into a strange and purposeless blend of chaos and inertia; though he doesn’t do much these days besides smoke, drink beer and ride his Harley, he seems to teeter perpetually on the brink of a meltdown. Occasionally, and without provocation, Miller becomes so overwhelmed by blind rage that he imagines shooting a stranger in the kneecaps or beating a fellow bar patron to a bloody pulp. “I can be drinking a beer and get pissed off and think, Tm gonna break this bottle and cut that guy’s throat over there,'” he says. “And then something hits me, and I snap out of it.” Once an affable troublemaker eager to go out with friends his own age, the twenty-three-year-old Miller now spends most of his time alone or with an ill-reputed motorcycle club called the Kentucky Highwaymen, many of whom are Vietnam vets who also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Miller’s nightmares, insomnia, heightened alertness, self-imposed isolation and persistent recollections of his seven months in Iraq are all classic symptoms of PTSD, an anxiety disorder that results from exposure to an event so psychically frightening that the aftershocks continue for months or even years. Studies estimate that as many as 500,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from some form of psychological injury, with PTSD being the most common. Miller hasn’t been to a doctor in over a year, and, like so many vets, he seems to have fallen off the government’s radar. He tried the abundance of medications – antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, mostly – that the Veterans Administration has sent him, but they only exacerbated his nightmares, jitters and apathy. And therapy is hard to get in places like Jonancy: For a while, he tried living in West Virginia to be near a PTSD specialist, but he missed his familiar surroundings and moved back home. Besides, the VA bureaucracy is hell for anyone to navigate, let alone a guy who feels like he could snap at any moment.
“The military makes it hard for these guys to get help,” says Rep. Bob Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “We’re letting ticking time bombs out into society. Suicides are increasing among vets, and many of those with PTSD have felony convictions. The VA and the Department of Defense won’t acknowledge the incredible size of the problem, and it’s yet another indictment of the war we’re fighting and how we deal with these fighters.”
Like many disabled vets, Miller feels betrayed by the military, neglected by the VA and misunderstood by pretty much everyone else. “People hear ‘PTSD’ and they think that means you’re crazy,” he says. “My aunt tells her kids, ‘Don’t go around Blake. He might flip out and shoot you.'”
Because he has a hard time staying in one place for very long, Miller rarely spends the night at his trailer, crashing wherever his aimless driving – on the back of his 2006 Harley-Davidson Softail Standard or in the cab of his forest-green pickup truck – takes him. “It’s hard to hang out with him sometimes,” says Luis Sinco, the photojournalist who snapped the iconic picture of Miller and who has since become his close friend. “You end up driving 1,500 miles at the drop of a hat because he’s in the mood to go somewhere.”
Miller’s recklessness behind the wheel is typical of his ambivalence about his mortality: During our first drive together, in the midst of a drenching nighttime storm, he navigated winding Kentucky mountain back roads while wearing sunglasses, at one point steering with his knees as he opened a bottle of beer with a pocketknife. The only place Miller feels comfortable these days is at the home of his friends Lita Holbrook and Jeff “Bodean” Hall in nearby Wheelwright. The couple keep a spare pistol around the house he can take to bed, so he makes a habit of heading up the mountains to see them every few days.
“I’m not caged inside my mind when I’m at Lita and Bodean’s,” Miller says. “It’s like I actually forget. Normal is only as normal as the people you’re around, and for the first time since I came home, I’ve met people that make me feel normal.” Lita also suffers from PTSD – the result, she says, of an emotionally damaging relationship she escaped before she shacked up with Bodean. To Miller, whose own mother has long been absent from his life, Lita is “Small Maw,” and she lavishes him with the unconditional love and concern that he clearly craves.
Wherever he finds himself, though, Miller counts his time in days. “I don’t worry about tomorrow unless I wake up,” he tells me one night in his trailer. “I have no goals, long-term or short-term. I don’t worry about paying the bills. I don’t worry if I’m gonna have money to eat tomorrow. I don’t worry about fuckin’ nothin’. As long as I keep telling myself I wasn’t there – if I can believe that for thirty minutes out of the day just by telling myself over and over and over, ‘I wasn’t there. It didn’t happen” – that thirty minutes is worth it.”