CPT Ryan Miller (Army, OIF Veteran)
Officers have long been held to a summarily different standard than the rest of their military peers. The West Point cadet knows this from the moment they step on the hallowed grounds of the Military Academy in West Point, New York. Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Stonewall Jackson, Normand Schwarzkopf are just a few of the names that ascended from the West Point ranks, becoming recognized as some of the greatest military minds to ever put on a uniform. Regardless of your political affiliation, there is a massive recognition of these men as the titans of the battlefield and the forefathers of logistical artistry. That's not to mention the other brilliant thinkers that became a part of our culture, leaders in all fields and occupations. So, it's understandable that when Ryan Miller speaks of his time at West Point, there's a certain pride and reverence he carries as he remembers his time at the Military Academy.
Still, none of these "West Pointers" would disagree if you stated that their time at West Point didn't prove the merits of their leadership model. That was proven on the battlefield, and Captain Miller is a prime example of this. It was his time in the Middle East as an infantry commander where he learned his greatest lessons. Throughout the blog, you will read the words of a man who sacrificed greatly for his country. These sacrifices resulted in an early retirement and the loss of limb, an all-too common theme in our current wars. The more impressive aspects of this story are in Ryan's description of that loss. His battlefield cool was maintained throughout the ordeal, and that composed attitude was aimed at preserving the demeanor of his men. Like any veteran covered by this blog, Miller has ideologies all his own, a beautiful representation of the differing identities present in the military. He shares those openly and honestly throughout the piece. Here's Captain Ryan Miller.
What was your life like growing up and led you on a path to West Point?
RM: I grew up on Staten Island, which is NYC’s forgotten little borough, in the late 90’s. Staten Island felt like one of the biggest little small towns. I never felt at place there. It had its share of challenges for sure. I knew from a young age that in order to achieve what I wanted I needed to get off Staten Island. I went to High School in Manhattan. The commute was an hour to two hours for that and people thought I was crazy. It required taking a bus, a boat, and a train every single day. It was phenomenal to do that and feel that independence at such a young age. I was commuting with big shots that were headed to Wall Street. My high school was a five minute walk from the Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. The high school was a ten story beautiful building and brand new. This was in the late 90’s and it was one of the most peaceful times in recent US history. There were events going on and American soldiers were dying but for the most part it was a peaceful time in our country. My father passed away my sophomore year in high school. I remember watching the Army/Navy game at a young age and my father talking about West Point. My Uncle Paul had attended West Point as well. I remember him talking about West Point a lot and I appreciated his strength. That could have possibly been the seed right there.
I did attend a very, very good high school. It’s considered one of the best in the U.S. and you had to pass an entrance exam to even get in. The kids I went to school with were extremely smart. The class had 650 students out of which 250 ended up at Ivy League schools. I played football and that was how I identified myself. I never really got as serious or competitive with the academics. I technically graduated in the bottom half of my high school class (laughs).
I was looking at colleges and West Point piqued my interest. It appeals to people who are looking for a challenge. I wanted to do something different than what everyone else is doing.
My uncle was slowly “propagandizing” me about it by giving me books. I started reading them as a junior in high school along with submitting to the long application process. There was a book titled, “A Civil War: Army vs. Navy” which was about the 1996 Army/Navy game. Another book was about the class of ‘66 in Vietnam. I read Killer Angels which is one of the most definitive books on the Battle of Gettysburg. I also read a book called, “Once an Eagle,” which was one of the greatest books ever written. It follows a certain type of officer and man that we should all aspire to be. I remember reading all these books and visiting West Point and it was an incredibly powerful experience. I began to think it was the kind of future I wanted. I never really thought about the Army until I read those books. I kept saying to myself, “I’ll never get to experience this,” which of course is a male fatal flaw where we think, “Aw, shucks, I’ll never get to do stupid shit. I won’t get to kill people, get killed or watch my friends die.” I remember sitting there thinking I wouldn’t get to do any of that and feeling bad about that. People were even debating the actual need for a military academy. They thought there was no real need for it in the future. I checked out a few other schools for football and academics. I wasn’t good enough in football so Princeton and Georgetown were going to be tough with my grades.
My senior year living in New York City I figured out how to live cheap. We found this Chinese restaurant that after 5 o’clock had a buffet. It was $1.50 for all you could fit on this plastic container. You could buy a soda next door for .50 cents from this other cheap convenience store. We would eat there during the summer. I worked at my high school during the summer and would commute in every day. I thought I had just eaten some bad Chinese food because I suddenly had this bloody diarrhea. I felt like shit. I went to an Urgent Care and they gave me some really strong antibiotics. That episode just threw my body off which caused me to not have a strong senior season in football.
This issue drove me even closer to West Point since I didn’t think I could play at a major D1 school. I stopped focusing on football and shifted it to West Point. I had my physical and had already been accepted into West Point. My grades were getting stronger and SAT scores were great. February came around and I wanted to get in peak shape before starting there. I started working out really hard. I began drinking this weight gainer shake that I had which again caused the bloody diarrhea. I thought that maybe it was tainted weight gainer shake. I went back to the doctor and told him about the shake thinking that it could have been the cause instead of the Chinese food. The doctor said that he wouldn’t just give me antibiotics and send me on my way. He suspected it was something worse wrong with my system. My grandmother had Crohn’s disease which is an autoimmune issue where your digestive system attacks itself. Your whole digestive tract gets inflamed and is an allergy basically. It looked like I might potentially have Crohn’s or colitis. They wanted me to receive a scope to determine what was wrong. I had all these studies done to pinpoint the issue. They came back and said I definitely had Ulcerative Colitis. I remember talking to this GI doctor asking what that meant.
He told me I would need to start taking prednisone and other medications. I told him that I was planning on starting at West Point in 5 months. They asked me if I could wait to start for a year or defer. It was 2000-2001 before 9-11 and West Point didn’t “need” any cases like mine. If I would have shown up day one and told them I had ulcerative colitis they would have thrown me out. I wasn’t ready to figure out another life plan at that point. I had invested in West Point. I never reported any kind of change. I took the prednisone and assumed a urinalysis would show everything. I thought I had to be off the meds a month before I started so they wouldn’t know. I started there in the worst shape of my life. The first day of basic training wasn’t as bad and fortunately I made it through the summer without it affecting me in any way. The health issue wasn’t as challenging as what people think. It was more of an emotional challenge. I did have another attack towards the start of the school year. I went to my friend whose dad was the brigade surgeon. I wound up seeing him and he did the right thing. He told me that if we could control without prednisone (but with other medications) I would be ok.
It wasn’t so much about the Army at that point. I was more focused on West Point. I wanted to do something different than what my high performing peers were doing. It appealed to me. It was a combination of physical and mental toughness. My father had passed away and there was a little bit of money. My sister now had the money to go to any school she wanted to attend. My school was free and that was the other benefit. I wasn’t burdening anybody. I wasn’t burdening my family with my educational choice. That was the most important thing.
Can you talk about your September 11th experience?
RM: When you are at West Point, every day your room has to be in an inspection state. They make sure it’s clean, your bed is made right, and they go through your drawers. It has to be up to standard and it all needs to look like your roommate’s. It’s called AMI Inspection and there is PMI Inspection, which is after that. During the AMI Inspection you’re not allowed to sleep and you have to have your door open 90 degrees. We would sleep on top of our bed and just lay a sheet on top of it and sleep on that. You had four minutes in the morning to be shaved, dressed, and have the room in pre-state inspection. When you returned from breakfast you would grab your books and head out. That’s how everyone did it. They wanted to make sure you weren’t doing that the entire semester so once a week you had to break your entire bed. You had to put all the bedding on it and send some out to wash. You would make your bed and just kind of fall asleep on it and then get in trouble for it. They would come in and yell at you for that (laughs). It was an unspoken thing. People would wake you up but they wouldn’t fuck with you
So on the morning of September 11th I was doing just that when someone came running down the hall yelling for us to turn on the TV set to the CQ Desk. I wondered what the hell was going on, but it was good timing because I had to go get this medicine for my colitis before my first class. At this time, the first plane had already hit but word had not gotten out yet. As I am walking back from picking up my medicine and headed to my Chemistry class I hear people talking about it. The first thing I thought was, “Oh, shit. Didn’t a plane hit the World Trade Center once before?” I walk into my Chemistry class and the TVs are on an everyone is staring at them. I thought, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” My teacher is this grizzled old Infantry Lieutenant Colonel and we watched this and delayed the start of class. He said, ‘Alright guys, your lives have all changed dramatically this morning. We still have a job to do and a lab today. We have to get prepared for the lab.” He goes and turns the TV off. All I can think of is “Oh fuck! I forgot my lab goggles.” I have to run back to my room and have a two minute period to get them. I sprint back to my room and no upperclassman is messing with anybody. They were all kind of in shock. I get back to the lab and work with this football player and it got me thinking how I had football practice in the shadows of those buildings. We turned off the TV as the first tower fell. I just said, “I practiced football in the shadows of those things on summer mornings.” It was crazy. But that night at West Point you would have thought that nothing had happened. It was a school that more than any other school was affected in the long term, yet it was business as usual. It went to the principle of you have to compartmentalize and drive on to complete the mission. There was a huge sense of normalcy. I wasn’t too worried about getting kicked out for medical reasons after that (laughs).
What happened after West Point when you received your commission?
RM: When you’re at West Point you pick your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and then you pick your post. I was debating between Germany and Hawaii because I was infantry. As a city kid, I had thought during basic training, “Fuck this shit in the woods. I’m going to do something chill.” (laughs) but over the course of my time there I realized that it was the best opportunity for me to learn and experience leadership. I went infantry and I had to choose between Germany and Fort Lewis. I talked to my NCO whose wife was German and asked him, “Hey, I’m looking at a couple of different posts. First one is Germany and can you tell me about it?” He said, “Oh Germany is great. Yadda yadda.” Then, “where else are you looking?” I told him, “Fort Lewis.” He said, “Go to Fort Lewis. You’ve got everything there.” Here’s the irony. I picked Fort Lewis as my duty station and the unit I picked wound up getting moved to Germany. I went down to Fort Benning and the best thing about infantry was the class reunion at Benning. It was so much fun and back in 2005 and 2006 Infantry Officer Basic Course was the shit.
West Pointers really don’t want to have a reputation of being “too cool for school.” You meet so many folks from different places at the Military Academy. When the West Point people show up at the various school they know a lot of the other students there. These other students from different schools don’t know anyone. They understand we aren’t the bad guys when we’re quick to include them. IOBC or BOLC, as it’s called now, was fun and lasted sixteen weeks. I also completed Airborne School which was really just falling out of a plane five times (laughs). I then went to Ranger school which was a total blast (laughs facetiously). Then I went to Fort Lewis for a bit before our unit made the move to Germany. If I had gone straight to Germany as an officer the opportunities wouldn’t have been as good as the unit I was in. All of the officers lived in a town where they didn’t have a direct train connection to the town our base was in. All of the officers could act just like Joe, who relied on the trains, and be stupid. We were good at not crossing the line and getting in trouble. I think that’s the only difference between a second lieutenant and a private - typically the lieutenants have a better understanding of the boundaries. Leadership didn’t find out about our stupid shit (laughs).
Our unit, ‘Deuce-Four” which is a very storied unit, got back from Mosul shortly before I arrived. Lieutenant Colonel (now General) Erik Kurilla was the battalion commander. I showed up there in 2006 when he was leaving. They had been resetting and were bringing in new soldiers. There were group dynamics changing. You had team building and things like that going on. They were getting ready to transport everything to Germany. After we made the move we had two full training cycles with the team we ended up deploying with. We had a better team because of that extra time training together. Germany is still the best year of my life. I made some incredible friendships with guys in my unit during that time.
Can you talk about your experience as a cadet and moving forward?
RM: Everybody has a very different experience at West Point. If you found how you best operate in that environment and were able to take advantage of it I believe it’s a great place. I did really well there. There are four pillars of West Point and three determine your ranking in the system. This has implications which will affect a job or post in the Army. There is the academic which is the biggest component of the overall grade. I enjoyed school which made me focus mostly on academics and I stayed under the radar. I kept a small group of really close friends. The military leadership positions I had early on were leading small groups or individuals. I was helping develop the underclassmen and freshman and I took that seriously. It was never for the grade. I was given incentives to do well academically, physically, and militarily. I discovered that if I did certain things academically or on papers I could parlay that into some kind of pass. I had a lot of things going for me at West Point. My mother and sister lived an hour and fifteen minutes away. It was to the point that my mother and sister got a letter in the mail while I was in basic training. It informed them that every Wednesday night that I would have, “Chaplain’s time.” We would go to a mass or religious ceremony. The reason everyone went was because afterward people in the community would bring junk food and you could pig out. Plus we didn’t get messed with by the cadre for about an hour which was nice (laughs).
I remember telling my mother if she got up here and was slick about it, I could probably see her and say, “Hello.” You have to understand at this point she was in her mid-forties, short hair, and a marathon runner. She worked out like crazy and looked like a female colonel type. She showed up with my sister. It was close enough where my mother just jumped in the car and drove up on a whim. I walked into the Catholic chapel and saw my mother and sister. It was the best feeling and it was the turning point where that summer became fun for me. I realized all the bullshit was superficial. She just hung out with us and nobody questioned her because she looked like she belonged there. When she first got there someone asked her if she had someone there and she just answered, “Yep.” She was smart and not going to give too much information. The next week all the other kids had their parents come. They dressed up in their Sunday best and totally stuck out. The kids got in trouble and it was kind of funny.
I always thought that I was going to live at home and have people over at the house all the time.
I was trying to create bonds and as time goes on I found my tribe. One of the guys from my squad from basic training was from a town not far from West Point called Cornwall. His best friend was also from Cornwall who ended up being in my company at school my second year. I got to know them well. They were very similar to me and became my best friends there. I could hangout with them a lot because my house was so close. I stayed out of trouble and worked very well in the structured system.
What would you say to anyone going into leadership role in the Army?
RM: Be humble and respectful. Leadership isn’t a license to be hierarchical. You need to know what’s right. Patience is a tremendous virtue but also be balanced in having emotional intelligence. It’s not that hard to be good at PT. You should be and not to just be a better war fighter. It feels good to be able to smoke the shit out of somebody (laughs). As an officer, you don’t do smoke sessions or antagonistic things. However, you do establish dominance by telling your squad leaders that you’re going to do some platoon PT. They might look at you and bitch. I’d just say, “Let’s go.”
That said, my company commander would run an officer PT session every Wednesday morning. It was always the same thing and smoked the piss out of the officers. It did get us into better shape eventually and helped me a lot. Our FSO who was a big meathead type, not fat at all, didn’t want to run. He could throw you across the room though (laughs). He would always beg for a weight room workout.
What do you remember about getting overseas and serving in that environment?
Where were you at and what were you doing?
RM: I was in Baghdad the whole time in Iraq. Our unit was a really awesome asset. We were a Stryker unit. My company was detached from my battalion at first and reattached to another division doing shit. I started off in Karkh (neighborhood in Baghdad), which was the model for a new kind of counterinsurgency of working closely with the Iraqi Army. I was able to do a lot of civil reconstruction type work. It meant being able to deliver generators out to folks in the area, run medical clinics, etc. We were staying at Camp Prosperity for a while which was one of the palace type bases in the green zone. We had this one major SIGACT (significant action) and we patrolling through a neighborhood and heard a large, “BA-BOOM!” The explosion came from the direction of the market and we immediately thought , “Oh shit, this is going to be bad. Let’s get tactical.” But we were pleasantly surprised that not only had no one been killed, but the Iraqis themselves had everything under control by the time we got there.
Can you talk about the feeling leading up to that deployment ?
RM: I was very excited but had this anxiety that was not so much over the danger of the deployment though. I felt ready and most of my peers had already deployed. My main issue was with my mother who was back in New York. My uncle had been drafted and went to Vietnam. He was attached to the Ranger units. He got a little banged up and took some shrapnel. Moreso though, he came back very different mentally. My uncle was older than my mother by nine years. My mother was very against war due to the fact she had been the primary one raising her brothers as a child herself. My grandmother had told my mother that if she didn’t write and pray a rosary for my uncle every day he was going to die. It really fucked her up. She was only ten years old. She started going to protests as a little kid and became very anti-war. Her greatest fear in life was her son going to war getting killed or all jacked up like her brother. When 9/11 happened she called me up because she saw the writing on the wall so to speak. For the longest time, I made stuff up to tell her.
The plans for the Stryker units had been on the books for quite some time. They were going to Germany and the reason for that was to kind of dissuade the Russian influence in the area. They wanted to make sure that we had strong NATO presence for our allies in Europe. We were going to do training rotations to build rapport with these former Eastern Bloc states. We all knew that we were going to get deployed to Iraq next summer, but at least I could tell my mother that we were more there for those “ally training rotations.” I remember in March that we were going to deploy soon and would be getting the orders. It was a month later in April that someone said, “Oh shit, we are in the New York Times.” I said, “What do you mean?” They said, “On the deployment schedule.” I get a call from my mother later that day and she said, “ Ryan aren’t you with the Strykers in Vilseck?” I answered her, “Yeah.” She said, “What the fuck is this in the New York Times saying you’re deploying?” I just told her that it was a calendar thing but eventually I had to tell her I was going to Iraq. It just fucked her world up. The only bad nightmare I have about Iraq is that I’m either there or on the plane there. All I can think is, “Damn, how am I going to explain or lie about this to my mother.” (laughs) . I was ready and excited for the adventure but also it was about time. It was my time to do my piece as my classmates did. There was no way I wasn’t going to deploy because I would have found a way.
Can you talk about the lead up to the mission and what you did?
RM: We had started in the southern part of Baghdad and basically had 24/7 cordoned the area. We were clearing our way from east to west. You would have a platoon that would move in for 12 to 24 hours. It was just clearing the area. There were a few planned attacks that we executed pretty early on in the deployment. We got really good at the deep buried IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat as we had figured out how to mitigate that issue pretty early on. We had a few injuries but no casualties. The booby-trapped houses (house-borne IED’s) are really what killed a lot of our guys. We figured out some of the signals they would use. There would be a white handprint somewhere and depending on how it was oriented with the number determined what floor it was on. We actually figured out their code which was pretty cool.
I remember we had these smoke pots that had been sitting in some S4 shop in Baghdad. Our S4 was super sharp. I said, “We’re the main effort right and we can have anything?” He said, “Have anything you want in here.” (laughs) It was like Neo going into the armory in the Matrix. They acquired a lot of those smoke pots. You would roll up in a truck and throw them out and you had massive, almost constant concealment.
At the time of my injury, we had been working our way east to west and had beaten Al Qaeda in that particular area and were trying to reassess the population. Al Qaeda had taken this place over which was a relatively wealthy area for Sunnis with bigger houses. 90% of the population had bounced when Al Qaeda came in but there women and children left there because they had nowhere else to go. They had hunkered down in their homes. As for the bad guys, what they would do inside the homes is spread chemicals around on the floor with a broom and let it dry. They were producing tons and tons of this explosive product called, “HME.” As we cleared an area, people would start moving back in. We were literally on the very western edge going to houses to see if people needed anything because their shit had been blown up. The eastern half had already moved back into the area and were thriving.
The day that I got hurt, October 18, 2007, we were patrolling certain areas and assessing the population’s movement back into the area. We had to leave the sector and go out to our main base. We staged out of Camp Falcon which is in southern Baghdad. We went down there for some shit and we were coming back in about two hours later. We were on this road at night and it was about 2000 hours (8 pm). The route was one of the few that seemed to maintain its name, “Yohomama”. Even the battalion commander would get in on the jokes (laughs). He was a pretty comedic guy and would say, “Yohomama is looking very dirty right now.” What’s crazy though is we had never had a SIGACT on it.
The iron claws or route clearance teams would clear that route once a week mainly due to nothing being on it. That day they just happened to clear it twice due to their random scheduling. We were driving down the route and there were these apartments which were like housing projects for Shia Muslims in southern Baghdad. We were driving past these apartments and we had just beaten our common enemy (Shia were affiliated with the Jaish al Mahdi). I honest to God think it was just some shitheads out there thinking “We have these EFPs (Explosively Formed Penetrator) that has been sitting there for a while. I’m bored. Let’s just blow it up today on some Americans.” (laughs) I had one of those ruggedized Bose headsets that were noise canceling and suddenly it sounded like someone yelled the word, “Boom!” It wasn’t the sound of an explosion but more like someone audibly yelling it in my ear. I felt an explosion but it was small not a massive one that would blow you down into the hatch. It was a small explosion and I was in this Shia neighborhood in southern Baghdad and thought, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I just got hit by an EFP.”
The EFP is the deadliest type of IED. They can go right through an Abrams tank, let alone a Stryker like we were riding in. We were hit and I suddenly realize that something weird is going on because it just sounded like someone yelled “BOOM!” I thought, “Oh shit, I can’t feel my lower body.” I literally couldn’t feel anything. I was about 230 pounds and I was in perfect shape at the time. I could wear the body armor for days straight and not feel it. I had all my weight on my elbows and that was holding me up in the hatch. I looked down and saw my right leg and suddenly could feel it and I planted it on the bench that I am standing on. I look over at my left leg and I thought fuck. The uniforms do a good job of hiding the severity of the wounds. But I saw that my uniform was shredded and could see my patella and tibia which looked like a tree branch sticking out. My first thought was, “Not good,” and I just passed out. I went to my happy place and I can’t completely recall the dream but I believe it was something like that Corona commercial (laughs). I was so warm and comfortable, at total peace surrounded by beautiful women with beer. I thought that was a horrible dream I just had about getting blown up in Iraq (laughs). Then all of the sudden weird shit started happening and I came to. I was on this guy’s leg and he was screaming. He was shouting from the pain and in a pool of blood. There was one guy who took a piece of shrapnel to his face, so if you only saw one side of his face it looked as if he was just slumped over. He’d actually been instantly killed. I was out for about 15-20 seconds and then we stopped. The driver was the only one that wasn’t hit and he just gunned it because if this was an ambush and we needed to get out of there. We traveled 400 meters down the road and the vehicle died because the fuel lines were hit. The radios were hit too.
I was conscious for the rest of it because I was so big and in shape. The rest of the company showed up within seconds because we were such a big presence. We couldn’t drop the ramp because it was broken and we had to open the door. I remember saying, “Sergeant Smith let’s fall out.” I fell four feet and who knows what additional damage that did (laughs). I don’t remember this but apparently, I said this, “Let’s see if we can get up and walk.” We both tried to stand up but we collapsed and they dragged us over to the side of the road. We were in the gutter in this shit water and I remember trying to drink out of my Camelbak was torn apart and in the shit water. I made a joke about getting me some “RIP ITs” and quickly remarked, “I’ll be fine.” Our battalion S3 always extolled the value of RIP ITs (laughs). I was just trying to put everyone at ease and make jokes because I wasn’t in any pain. I just didn’t know if I was going to live or die.
What kept me conscious was something internal. I believe this now and in that moment. I legitimately thought that if I died my mother would try to assassinate George W. Bush (laughs). She would get herself killed in the process and my sister would be by herself. That was literally the thought running through my head. I told myself, “I can’t die because I don’t want my sister to be alone.” What kept me conscious was thinking of my sister being alone (laughs).
It was twenty minutes from the time I got hit to the moment I received heavy medical care. I have to give those guys so many props. The X-Ray techs were there and they aren’t wearing any shields or anything. They did that all day and were constantly exposing themselves. I thought my leg was the only problem but I had this weird tingling feeling in my stomach.
My S3, aka “The RIP IT guy,” (laughs) took a ricochet a week earlier. It hit him in the nose and gashed his nose. He was out there for six hours bleeding and he didn’t want to go to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital, pronounced “kaSH”). He had tape and some other shit on his nose. He told leadership, “No, no, I’m not going to the CSH.” Finally, my BC (Battalion Commander) met up with him and sent him in to get it stitched up. He told the battalion commander, “I don’t want a purple heart or anything for this.” He went to the CSH and told them he didn’t want it recorded anywhere. They stitched him up and he left. The CSH did the right thing and recorded it when he left so he received a Purple Heart, which he absolutely deserved. The problem was that the injury went into the computer system and showed that he’d been wounded. They called his wife and couldn’t reach her so they called his mom. The only thing they said was, “Your son has been injured.”
So I wanted to make sure I got in touch with people back home myself if I could. They took me in and I called my mother along with my aunt. I tried to get in contact with my mother. I left this message that I thought was very positive because I didn’t want to jinx it (laughs). I had this giant piece of shrapnel that was just under my skin a couple of millimeters from my belly button. I definitely didn’t want her freaking out.
Can you remember some details of that moment and lying in that hospital bed?
RM: They had just finished x-rays and things were calming down a little bit. I was almost out of blood and struggling to stay conscious. I remember watching the guy take a scalpel and make a cut in my leg with a 15 gauge needle. He just jabbed it in for the IV. It was like a spigot when he turned on the blood pack’s release valve and life just started streaming back into me. I then noticed this little red mark next to my belly button, and other than that my stomach was fine. He told me I had probably hit it against the hatch as I fell. I touched it and it was rock solid. I thought to myself, “Where did this come from?” A piece of shrapnel had entered in near my ass and had traveled up into my stomach. If it had broken through I probably would have died. I consider it a miracle it didn’t punch through.
Did you think at any point you were going to bleed out?
RM: They had the tourniquet on my leg but I didn’t know what was going on with my stomach.
I didn’t realize my ass was full of massive wounds. There was enough tissue there to tighten up on itself so I wouldn’t bleed out. I thought I might die but I was trying to stay optimistic. I kept joking with everyone around me to help calm them down. I just stayed super calm. It was one of the most incredible experiences in my life.
Were you proud of yourself in that moment?
RM: The luxury of leadership is that you are able to worry about the other people and take your mind off yourself. Plus I think it was one of the most incredible moments in my life. It’s not a trauma to me where I relive that or anything. It was the first time I had perfect clarity in thought. When I was lying there in that street in Baghdad it was like my brain was perfect. The closest thing that I’ve experienced to that has been psychedelics. It was like getting my brain in a state of where it just worked. If I could have that clarity of thought for twenty or thirty minutes I could solve world peace (laughs). I felt I could do amazing things.
I got a little nervous once I realized I had this giant piece of shrapnel in my stomach. I called home and my mom never answers the phone, it’s always off. She has a cell phone that she just keeps off. I left a message and wanted to reassure her but at the same time I didn’t want to jinx myself. I called my aunt who was the easiest number to remember. I told her I was going into surgery and they thought they could save my leg, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I asked her to get the word to my mother. I headed to surgery and came out of it to see my battalion commander standing there. He said something that could have been taken as cliche but it wasn’t. He had gotten banged up in the invasion and received a silver star. He told me not to worry about coming back. I knew I needed to be back. He knew my days were done. It was a special moment.
They sent me up to Balad and I was waiting for a flight. That was where I first started feeling pain and it was getting tough to handle. It was some type of ICU (Intensive Care Unit) area and the guys told me I was going to be there for a couple of hours and asked if I wanted a movie. They brought me a mini DVD player and I watched Joe Dirt and was just lying there thinking of my future ahead. My stomach was perforated along with my liver, small intestines, stomach, bladder, and just everything was messed up. My gallbladder had to get removed a couple of years later because it filled up with stones which I think must be related to the injury. I couldn’t eat for about a week at all because my stomach had to heal. The first week I was coherent and my mother flew out to see me in Germany. She walks into the room and says, “What the hell?” I was covered above my colostomy, except for the IV’s, I was jacked and tan. She wondered if it was real because I looked incredible.
How was it to see your mom in the hospital for the first time?
RM: That was powerful. Other family members came out with my mother to Landstuhl, which was a great hospital. After a great experience at Landstuhl I flew out to Walter Reed a week later. I get on the bus and this nasty disgusting E7 is being terrible to everyone. My gurney was falling off and I was having to hold myself stable. I was afraid I was going to fall off completely. I told her I was going to fall off and she replied, “You’ll be at the hospital soon enough.” I told her it was a 20 minute ride. They brought us there and 50 different doctors all of a sudden come in and start introducing themselves. This is also when my body, even as big as it was, couldn’t sustain and started eating muscle tissue. I started rapidly becoming incoherent. I go in for surgery on a Saturday morning because I couldn’t fly with all these wound vacs. When you have these big open wounds the best way to heal them is to pack them with sterile material. You have to go into surgery for it and clean it out and pack it with this carbon black gauze looking stuff. They also put suction on it so it was constantly sucking this goop out of my wound. It’s a very effective way of healing large wounds.
Sunday morning I woke up and had my labs done and they informed me I needed a transfusion. They arrived and gave me it to me in my room. The whole day was depressing because there was no one around, no activity. I couldn’t get out of bed for thirty days. Nick Foley (WWF, Mankind) came into the hospital and that was definitely a highlight.
Why did you join up with Warrior Rising?
RM: First and foremost would be my relationship with Jason Van Camp. I had the pleasure of meeting Jason through some of our mutual friends and West Point network. I worked with him and Mission Six Zero. We did some leadership training with the Jets and the Raiders. I moved out here to Silicon Valley to start working for a start up and Jason was doing startups in Utah. We were able to see the world from an entrepreneurial lens. We were trying to fundraise like most startup folks. Jason came up with the idea for Warrior Rising while working at a Raider’s engagement when a veteran approached him asking about owning a business.
Jason explained the basic business documents and plans to him. He approached me after that and we thought we could do a venture capital model. We wanted to make a major impact in this area of the veteran community because we knew it was a necessity. We found out, as we met with veterans, that the business model they had didn’t mesh with the venture capital plan. It’s very specific business types that venture capital needs to invest in. It has to have certain characteristics involving growth and the costs have to be a certain way. Lifestyle businesses like a gunsmith or a knife company are not of the typical venture growth model. A lot of the companies we were meeting with needed the more traditional form of capital investment and mentorship for these types of lifestyle companies. We had to create a more robust model to support those who needed this type of investment.
What do you think will make Warrior Rising work in the future ?
RM: I think we are doing a really good job of laying the foundation of having a broad spectrum of services. Our position can really help any veteran entrepreneur out there or even create a potential opportunity. We start at the beginning of the process with those that are ideally still in the Army. The ones that are getting out and transitioning and deciding what they want to do next, are great candidates. They’re figuring out if they want to work in a corporate environment or to start something on their own. They might have a “jack of all trades” skill set that was developed in the military. It has its foundation in leadership and management to get shit done. We meet those people and help determine if entrepreneurship is right for them. We tell them the things they will need as they create their idea. There are those that are already out that have an idea and we go through the procedure of figuring out if it’s sound. We make sure it’s a core issue people care about. We want to maximize their chances of success. We can hook them up with mentors if that’s what’s going to move the ball forward. Jason and I also do some mentorship too. We have a few different pillars we’re currently enacting: general entrepreneurial training, mentorship, crowd funding assistance and then direct cash grants. We work with our vetrepreneurs and help them along the way. If we give them money we have to have absolute confidence that it’s going to help get their business to a successful level.
What advice would you give to business leaders coming out of the military?
RM: I would say start planning early. If you are at 20 or 20 plus years in the military you most likely know when you are going to retire. You need to know what your financial situation looks like or you want it to look like. The entire family needs to be on board with the plan and idea. It can be stressful and sometimes difficult. The more planning you do before you get out the higher the chance you will have for success. The number one thing you can do is start early. Number two is educate yourself. You need to know what type of business you want to commit to and it helps to read books. It’s helpful to build a network or have mentors. The advisors you have are important. It’s also important to be honest with yourself.
What do you like most about the Mission 6 Zero model?
RM: I like the Mission 6 Zero model because of it’s very powerful physical leadership training. It sinks in because it’s such a memorable and unique experience. The one on one is very memorable. I think that really attracted me because it’s a very serious approach and different than the typical business leadership training. The key is helping employees be mentally capable of growing in their position. It’s being able to understand based perspectives and things you’ve been through. You have to draw from external sources to give you strength. You have to be able to say, “This is tough but somebody else has it much tougher.” Hopefully, through these training scenarios it’s still a game but there are more serious things you’re learning throughout. It’s about emotional control to get positive value from some of the adrenaline. You’re still going to throw your best strikes when you’re pitching, if you’re able to maintain a level of calm.
Can you talk about some of the benefits of marijuana legalization and some of the legislation (or what you want removed) that you want to see going into the future?
RM: I work with a number of groups at both the Federal and local level to promote cannabis as an alternative for our veterans (and overall) population to not just pharmaceuticals, but also other substances that are used for social reasons (mainly alcohol). Cannabis is the safest treatment out there for most of the issues our veterans face, so cannabis access should be considered a veteran’s healthcare issue.
What are the most important character traits within a business ?
RM: Humility allows you to see through the gaps in your ideas, so that you can adjust your plan. Integrity in dealing with people is important, and not being tempted to take shortcuts. There are people who are trying to take those and in the long run that’s not a good way to go about solving issues. You need to have a sticktoitiveness in those times. You need to have the ability to absorb the devastating challenges. You can feel like you know what people need and assume what’s needed. You might be wrong even when you feel you’re right. Be flexible. All of the big companies out there that ever started have different ideas. The more you train and plan to the last detail the better you become at adapting. Military folks have a misplaced confidence in themselves sometimes. They have a vast amount of experience they draw from so that when decisions are made it’s a confident one. But, there needs to be an understanding that you don’t know everything and that’s normal and therefore okay. The trick is to just be honest with yourself. You might have had great success but there are situations you have no control over even within that success. You have to figure out how to be honest. If you truly want to do this, then have a creative detailed plan.
What can be some of the weaknesses of soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen coming out of the military ?
RM: The weakness would be coming from a very value-driven society in a world that doesn’t necessarily have that. It’s learning how to vigilant in that regard. You need to maintain a standard as to how you deal with people when doing business with them. Some military guys have a hard time with humility coming from a place where they have been looked up to. You were somebody that always had answers and an expert in your field or military art, and no you don’t. It has to do with being clear and decisive. They’re now thrown into a position where they are intimidated by the world outside the military. There are times when folks are so accustomed to knowing everything that it actually hinders them from learning. People aren’t always the best at taking advice. Sometimes they take it too literally and get burned which causes them to not take it the next time. You have to realize that it’s a lot harder than just hanging around people that have money. We tell them assistance is a hand up and not a hand out.
How do we bridge the gap between civilian and veteran populations?
RM: This is tough as the other edge of the freedom sword is allowing folks to not be patriotic - and I mean this in the social cohesion and supporting fellow citizens sense. Worse yet, it allows folks to hide behind a veil of spoken patriotism, but when you look at their actions they’re highly selfish and individualistic. In fact, most members of our society sacrifice nothing for this country, and many of those who do the least for others say they support America the most, even as they perpetuate a system which allows them to consolidate resources on the backs of those who serve, then pay them lip service, or worse yet throw them crumbs while taking the majority of the bread for themselves. Allowing this false structure to continue never allows us to truly address this problem. So, unless we have a massive structural change to our social system, the divide will grow. Sorry to sound so negative but its the stone-cold truth. I personally feel that a society should only allow franchise and should only be governed by those who have made a demonstrable sacrifice to the country (military or otherwise), but that will never happen.
What do you want to impress upon people about your life and remember about you?
RM: On my deathbed I want to be able to realize I didn’t live a bullshit life and that my happiness and success weren’t founded upon a scam. I think it’s healthy to be selfish when you’re dying. My selfishness is to be prepared for death and feel good about that. The way to get there is not to be selfish in your actions or be a hypocrite. I want to be able to judge myself in peace.
Nobody asks to be wounded at war. Short of death, it's the most sacrificial offering one can partake in as a part of the warrior class. There's the physical disability that loss of limb brings on, and that can be horrifying to those who've been known as exceedingly capable war-fighters. Then, there's the implicit mental trauma that comes as a result of that. Still, Miller is a prime example of working through some of those issues into a better, more productive life. Past that time at West Point and post-injury, his advancement in academia has led to multiple advanced degrees. Were those leadership traits he exhibited throughout his time of war, in an incredibly stressful environment, a part of that Military Academy educative process? Possibly. The more likely answer is that West Point helped nurture those things already inherently possessed by a young, tough kid from Staten Island. Regardless, his example of leading from the front as an officer in combat is another proud extension of the Military Academy's long lineage of top-notch leadership. We'd like to thank Captain Miller for being part of the project. This blog has been brought to you by Warrior Rising.