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The Troubled Homecoming of the Marlboro Marine

This is the face of the war in Iraq. The mind behind it will never be the same

blake miller

blake miller

Michael Macor/SF Chronicle/Getty

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.”

Blake always wanted to be a Marine. His grandfather, James Clint Miller, served in the Corps in ’53. Clint died before Blake was born, but the family always told the junior Miller that he was exactly like his grandpa in almost every way. Standing in his trailer, Miller takes two group portraits from the wall and hands them to me. One is a photo of Clint’s Marine Corps graduating class, the other of Blake’s. “Look, he looks just like me,” Miller says. “You oughta see my face cleaned up. I’m him made over.”

Like Grandpa Clint, who was discharged after he decked an officer, Blake has always seemed to find ways to get himself in trouble. As a kid, he was quick to join in if a friend wanted to set fire to a neighbor’s tree or vandalize a car. By thirteen, he had started experimenting with gunpowder. “I didn’t need the Internet to tell me how to make a fuckin’ bomb,” he says. “I was gonna figure it out myself, no matter what. I got in trouble, and I stayed in fuckin’ trouble.”

But he was also uncommonly industrious, washing cars for a buck apiece to buy his first pickup at age twelve and, the following year, mowing lawns to raise money for the first of nine motorcycles he’s owned. His dad likes to say that Blake’s got only one speed: breakneck. When he does something, he does it all the way. At seventeen, he found religion, and went from sinner to ordained Baptist preacher in a couple of years. There is nothing Miller does with as much gusto, however, as smoking cigarettes. He started at twelve, after a neighbor gave him a butt to keep his hands warm while he waited for the school bus. Although he quit briefly during basic training, he now goes through as many as five packs a day when he’s drinking or anxious.

blake Miller Marlboro Man

It was the same way with the Marines: Once he decided to enlist, no one could talk him out of it. He was only seventeen, sitting in his doctor’s office for his annual athletics physical on September 11, 2001, when he heard that terrorists had crashed a pair of airplanes into the World Trade Center. The next day he insisted his father sign him up – or else he would quit high school.

If present-day Blake came face to face with his teenage self, he’d have more than words of warning. “I’d be beating my ass with a shovel all the way through them fuckin” cornfields,” he says. “I’d ask myself, ‘What the fuck are you thinking?'”

So what was he thinking? “Get the fuck out of Kentucky,” Miller says, his lip curling in a half-smile. “It was the only way I knew to travel and see the world. I just happened to pick a weird time to go. I got to travel, and it was a life-altering experience, that’s for sure.”

The town of Jonancy, nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains, is the kind of place that inspires thoughts of escape. Unemployment in the area is thirty-five percent higher than the national average, the median household income is less than $24,000 and only ten percent of county residents earn college diplomas. Miller’s friend Lita is one of the few who made it to college – she has an associate’s degree – but she’s still working the register at Bates Quick Stop, a backwoods grocery store. Business is slow – boxes of Duncan Hines cake mix collect dust on the shelf – but beer sales are brisker than ever. Behind the cashier’s counter, two handwritten signs remind customers that their accounts must be settled by the fifth of the month.

“You know Mayberry?” Lita asks, hushing her voice so she won’t be overheard by an elderly patron with one hand who goes by the name Peckerhead. “Well, you are in it.”

Miller, who, along with Bodean, likes to hang out at the store, pipes up from his chair by the door. “Hey, Maw,” he shouts, “what do you call a rabbit with a bent dick?” He pauses. “Fucks Funny!”

A set of chimes over the door jingles, and a customer walks in asking for Rolaids.

“We’ve got Tums,” Bodean says.

“What do we look like, Wal-Mart?” Lira adds, laughing good-naturedly.

Miller is slouched down in his chair, his features obstructed by his baseball cap, sunglasses and thick strawberry-blond beard, but the Rolaids guy still notices him. “I’ve seen you before,” he says. “You look familiar.” Miller stays quiet, but the customer finally figures it out. “You’re that Marlboro Man!” he says, loud enough so everyone can hear. “I knew I knowed you from somewhere!”

Miller is visibly unnerved by the attention and loathes his position as a local celebrity. He grew his beard, he says, to avoid being constantly recognized.

The door jingles again, this time in jarring disharmony with the tune being sung by a potbellied local they call Boss Hogg, who rolls in staggering drunk in the midafternoon. “I’ll be headed down the road to Buford,” croons Boss, a Vietnam vet who also not only suffers from PTSD but reminds you of its ravages with every slurred condemnation of Uncle Sam. Boss, who served several years in prison on drug charges after the war, has neither married nor had children, and spends his days trying to pickle his Vietnam memories in beer and moonshine.

“That there is the Marlboro Man,” the Rolaids guy tells Boss, showing off.

“I know!” Boss says. “That’s my friend.” He grabs a twenty-pack of beer and heads out to his truck, where his two Jack Russell terriers, Sparky and Spanky, are waiting in a basket in the front seat.

Later, when we get to Lita and Bodean’s four-bedroom house, Millerunloads some aggression in the driveway by firing off a few rounds from the revolver he packs in his cowboy boot. While Bodean and I look on, Boss insists on his own round, and, steadying himself against a car, he actually hits his mark. I ask Bodean if he thinks Blake will end up like Boss.

“Definitely not,” Bodean says. “We won’t let that happen.”

Charlie Company – 1st battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Division – had been in Iraq for five months, patrolling Anbar Province, when they got the word they would be headed to Fallujah in November 2004. “There’s some shit going on in Fallujah,” Miller’s commanding officer announced, “so we’re gonna hit the city and roll right through it.”

Miller didn’t believe it for a second. He and his fellow Marines were already coming under sniper fire every day. Fallujah, he knew, would only be worse. “Are you fuckin’ serious?” he thought. “Goddamn, no more than two weeks ago we just started getting shot at. Now you tell us we’re gonna go full fledge against guys who are running right at us, waiting to commit suicide?”

Miller is chuckling now, aware of the absurdity of the situation. “I mean, how do you soak all that in when you’re fuckin” twenty years old?” he says, pulling another beer from a fridge stocked with little else. “It’s like they were asking us, ‘Are you willingly ready to just fuckin’ die?’ You know what? No, I don’t feel like it. Not yet. I started thinking then, ‘Did I really fuckin’ sign up for this?'”

The fighting began in the dark of night and continued over the next twenty-four brutal hours, during which Miller’s squad endured nonstop bombardment by rocket-propelled grenades and machinegun fire. Sinco, the photojournalist embedded with Miller’s company, was shocked by the ferocity of the battle. “I was scared shitless,” he recalls. “We came under heavy fire, and I remember running across the street with bullets flying everywhere. We encountered three insurgents who were horribly, horribly dead. One had half his head blown off, and another guy was half-alive, speaking in Arabic. You could tell he was saying ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ The brutality was so extreme and so relentless.”

The unit sought shelter in a house and made the roof its command post. “I was standing near Miller, and an RPG came flying right at us,” Sinco says. Miller radioed for tanks to bring support fire. Soon a massive explosion shook the structure so hard it seemed it would collapse. Sinco saw a building nearby, smoldering. “I thought it was over. I slumped down against a wall with my camera, and for some reason Miller slumped down across from me and lit a cigarette. He told me later that he thought he’d never see another sunrise.” Sinco snapped the photo of Miller that was soon reproduced all over the world.

Sinco was shocked, however, when media outlets presented the image as a symbol of triumph. Seventy-one American soldiers were killed in Fallujah, and more than 600 were wounded, making it one of the war’s deadliest battles. “We were gonna die!” Sinco says. “It was all up in the air about who was kickin’ whose ass. But people were looking for any shred of American heroism in the wake of Abu Ghraib. And a certain segment of society wanted to see something else in the photo – a weird, twisted thing about American masculinity.”

Among many veterans, the image remains a matter of debate. “There’s almost too much in that picture to talk about,” says Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq vet and the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “He’s the gritty patriot who is willing to sacrifice everything, the poster child for the tough Iraq War hero. It’s one of those pictures that is vague enough so you can manipulate it into whatever you want it to be.”

The best way to understand the photo, Rieckhoff suggests, is to put it next to a picture of Miller now. “That’s a fair way of understanding that war is not what just happens over there – that when we come home, there is a whole other fight we have to deal with. That’s the part of the fight when nobody takes pictures, and it’s hard to get people’s attention, and it’s hard to get resources.”

It wasn’t until Miller returned home to Jonancy in February 2005 that he realized how big a deal Sinco’s photo had become – and how much pressure there would be for him to live up to its symbolism. “I get home, and there’s news vans and motherfuckers all over here,” he recalls, the anger putting gravel in his voice. “There were people offering me all kinds of deals, like, ‘Hey, this guy wants to make pillowcases and T-shirts with your picture on it,’ and ‘This guy wants to make a rifle after you.'” The Marine Corps attempted to license the photo and asked Miller to become a recruiter – an offer he declined.

After a month at home, he returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to prepare for redeployment to Iraq. While Miller’s company waited for its orders, it was dispatched to conduct search-and-rescue missions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Miller was in the galley of the USS Iwo Jima when a petty officer made a whistling noise that sounded exactly like a rocket-propelled grenade. Something in Miller snapped, and he blacked out. When he came to a few hours later, he was lying in the ship’s clinic, surrounded by a doctor and a shrink. Though Miller has no recollection of the incident, he was told that he slammed the petty officer from one wall to the other, threw him down and started beating him.

“I flipped out because I done this and I don’t remember,” Miller says. “I was like, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’ It’s been like that ever since.” Shortly after the incident, Miller received an honorable discharge: He became a civilian exactly one year to the day after Sinco’s photo first ran.

Miller saw several therapists after leaving the Marines, but eventually gave up. Dr. Laurie Harkness, who worked with Miller at a VA-affiliated center in Connecticut, says that most PTSD cases are treatable with intensive counseling and the right combination of reeds. But there is a heavy institutional stigma about mental-health issues in the armed forces, and since the military doesn’t conduct mandatory post-deployment psych evaluations in person, vets like Miller are left to make their own healthcare decisions.

“Fuck ’em,” Miller says. “They wanna dope me up to try to make me forget that the world is fucked up or forget that the shit that I done is fucked up.”

Miller receives a monthly benefit of $2,500 in disability payments – compensation not only for his mental injuries but for an array of physical impairments including hearing loss in his right ear, shrapnel scarring and a bacterial infection in his tear ducts. He has no cartilage left in either knee, and the muscles in his feet have calcified from carrying a 200-pound pack on his back in Iraq. “People say, ‘You draw money for being fucked up, so what’s your problem?'” Miller says. “I’d pay the government three times what they give me to have the sanity I had before.” 

Marlboro Marine

In June 2006, Miller renewed his wedding vows with his childhood sweetheart, Jessica Hobrooks, a twenty-five-year-old psychology major at Pikeville College. The couple had hurriedly married between deployments a year earlier, but they split up ten days after the renewal ceremony when Miller had a meltdown and disappeared on his motorcycle. Papers were filed, but their divorce has yet to be finalized. It wasn’t the first troubling episode Jessica had witnessed: Months after Miller returned from Iraq, he blacked out while cleaning his rifle and awoke with it pointed at Jessica. “I was willing to do anything in the world just to keep my wife, to help her understand what I was going through,” he says. “You would think being a psych major would make her more understanding than most, but instead it just made her ask more questions.”

Calling Miller the Marlboro Man in the context of Fallujah may have been an oversimplification, but the photo’s power derives in part from the simple truths it actually does convey about its subject: Miller is a man’s man, without even a whisper of metrosexual vanity. In the bathroom of his trailer, a gift basket of melon-scented shower gel and lotion is still covered in plastic that’s coated with a layer of dust. There’s a nearly empty bottle of generic mouthwash on the shelf, and his personal-hygiene arsenal consists of nothing but a razor and some “sport” body wash.

While we’re sitting on the floor in his trailer, Miller clicks on the television. He flips quickly past CNN, which earlier that night had broadcast a debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “I don’t care much for the news,” he says, “but I hope like hell Hillary wins. I just think she’s a baaad bitch. She’s great.” The television plays country-music videos in the background for the next hour, and then Miller switches to the Hustler channel and orders porn. In this masterpiece, a sinewy fellow covered in tattoos ejaculates on a toilet seat and his faux-goth-girl concubine licks it off.

“I’m sorry,” Miller says, blushing. “I hope you don’t mind. We had porn on all the time when I was a little kid, so it’s just like background noise to me. We would sit down to dinner, and my dad got mad if the TV wasn’t on Playboy.”

The next afternoon, Miller and Lira work on a series of songs they’ve written, including “Lonely Highway” – a plaintive, acoustic ballad about escaping your troubles on the back of a motorcycle – as well as covers of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Take It Easy.” Miller plays guitar by ear, and though he’s only got one good ear, it’s a good ear.

Boss, whose speech has grown progressively more slurred, demands his turn, and he takes us through a country breakup song called “Left Side of the Bed.” Miller makes an exaggerated sobbing sound as Boss gets to the end, and then busts up laughing. For an instant, he seems genuinely happy. He even hints that, over the past several months, things have felt a little less bleak. “I used to believe that I was gonna be just like Boss – the old vet that everyone is afraid of, who just wants to crawl in a hole and disappear,” he tells me. “That’s the way I felt when I first came back. But Bodean and Lita really keep me out of it.”

Sitting next to each other, Miller and Lita talk about their struggles, often completing each other’s sentences. “I just want people to understand what PTSD is,” Miller says. “It’s not that you’re a wack job who needs a straitjacket. It’s just that you have thoughts not exactly on the level…”

“And you can’t stop them,” Lita adds.

“Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam,” Boss mutters, almost entranced.

Even more than wanting to be understood, Miller wants vets suffering from mental injuries to receive the same honor awarded to those with physical wounds: the Purple Heart. Currently, veterans receive the medal only if they have endured bodily harm during battle. “What’s the difference between going into a combat zone and being injured physically versus being injured mentally?” Miller says. “One gives you a visible scar and the other doesn’t. Imagine how you would feel to be completely whole and not have the mind to function – just locked inside a hell you can’t escape.”

With the number of suicides among returning veterans climbing, it’s hard not to worry about Miller. Though he believes that taking one’s own life is morally wrong, his thoughts often take a dark turn. One night, sitting in his trailer, he says something that makes me fear he will end up another war casualty, dead and buried long after leaving Iraq. “I have a blatant disregard for life,” he says. “Every day that I wake up, it’s like, ‘Why do you keep giving me more?’ The Bible says the big man don’t put no more on you than what you can stand.…”

Miller pauses, the sound of porno moans wafting from the TV. “I mean, He must think I deserve to fuckin” be punished baaad. And the only reason why I can figure that I’m still alive is that this is God’s way of letting me feel the guilt for all the bad shit I did. Because there’s not a morning when I don’t fuckin” wake up and the first thing I think is, ‘Another day I’m here.’ What did I do to make me deserve another day? What have I done in my life that my buddies didn’t do to make me deserve so many days?”

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