WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 6, 2010) - The president will bestow the Medal of Honor this afternoon upon the family of Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller, whose actions allowed seven of his Special Forces teammates and 15 Afghan soldiers to escape an ambush kill zone.
On his second tour in Afghanistan, Miller -- known simply as Robby to his teammates, family, friends and teachers -- was killed when he volunteered to serve as point for a night security patrol with Operational Detachment Alpha 3312, in the Chenar Khar Valley near the Pakistan border Jan. 25, 2008. He was just 24.
Miller's fellow Green Berets remember the nightmare of how everything went down on that freezing winter night on the other side of the world.
'Ambush Alley' Patrol
Around 9 p.m., on Jan. 24, ODA 3312 received word that a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle feed had picked up enemy fighters armed with RPGs moving into a house. Miller's unit was ordered to link up with Afghan soldiers and proceed into "ambush alley," traveling as far as possible in their uparmored Humvees, then dismounting and moving toward the compound.
Once the unit was able to confirm the Predator was on the money, the team's Air Force joint tactical air controller would radio for a few 500-pound bombs to be dropped. Once the bombs had been dropped the team would move in and conduct a battle-damage assessment - at least that was the plan.
Staff Sgt. Eric Martin recalled that as his team moved up the mountain in their vehicles, with practically vertical 300-foot cliffs to the left and the right of the road, there just wasn't much wiggle room for protection or for counter-attacking because their guns were already angled up to max elevation. To make matters worse, the convoy came across two boulders at different intervals that had to be blown with C4.
"I was thinking, okay, we're gonna get hit from here, so we were trying to be as quiet as possible until the explosion obviously," he said. "The second boulder was nearly within sight of the objective, so we had to come to a stop again and blow that boulder. I believe that's when the enemy was tipped off."
Attack goes forward
The Afghan soldiers and ODA 3312 moved on until they positioned themselves where they could begin to attack. Then Martin and his team noticed through night-vision devices, fighters emerging from the house and taking up new positions.
When the firefight began, Martin thought everything was going great because the unit hadn't received any effective fire; nothing was impacting close to the team. The unit was returning heavy volumes of fire, so it seemed pretty one-sided and like the enemy was trying to bug out of the area, he recalled.
"Nothing unusual about it," Martin said. "It became unusual after the initial bombs were dropped and we'd opened with heavy fire." The unit then sent a dismounted element ahead of the vehicles which Miller was point for.
"This was Robby's second trip over and he had picked up Pashto on the first deployment... he had a talent for languages, he knew French, German, a little bit of Russian," Martin added. "He just had a gift which is why he was out front talking to the Afghans and in the position he was in, because the ANA soldiers had moved out too quickly and we needed to slow them down to gain command and control."
The dismounted element led the convoy across a bridge. Still everything seemed good, no shots had been fired, more than a few bombs had been dropped, so the assumption was the unit had taken out the enemy forces... until the sound of a Russian-built PKM machine gun split the air, answered by an M249 squad automatic weapon and M4 carbine fire. The entire hillside erupted into muzzle flashes and chaos.
Covering fire saves team
Martin knew the high-pitched cracks of the SAW, and he also knew Robby was behind the trigger, because he had left base without a suppressor, rolling heavy with extra 200-round 5.56mm drums attached to his kit.
"He didn't care about the weight... it was that mentality he had that characterized the whole team... 'we're gonna roll heavy; we're gonna make sure we're ready to fight and that we're prepared for it,'" said Martin.
When the hillside exploded into a firefight, the Special Forces team found themselves in a close-quarters ambush less than 50 feet from Taliban fighters. Almost immediately, the team's leader, Capt. Robert B. Cusick, had gone down after being wounded.
That's when Miller took command, taking out a machine-gun nest, always moving forward, firing constantly and throwing grenades while his teammates moved in reverse from the kill zone with their wounded captain, radioing for a medevac helo and working to regain control of the situation. It was the last time any of Miller's team saw him alive.
"I think he wanted to provide that extra firepower for his buddies so they could get out of the kill zone," said Cusick. "He bounded forward; we moved back... he saved lives that day. It was just in his personality and got passed on from his former team leader and team sergeant that he was a go-to guy, very reliable, very eager and one of the better in-shape guys on the team because of his gymnastics background."
'A genuine gem'
Cusick said Miller was always quick to volunteer and to take on more responsibility, recalling his weapons sergeant's last night when the team picked up the Afghan soldiers: "As soon as I said we're good to go, he went over and introduced himself to the Afghans, speaking Pashto to get them up for the mission."
Aside from his physical capabilities, knowledge of tactics, desire to speak Pashto fluently, Miller in his off-time served as the detachment's resident gemologist, the guy his teammates deferred to when they wanted to make sure a gem was a good deal, added Cusick.
"After he was killed the team passed Robby's gem detecting kit back to his family... that meant a lot to them," Cusick said. "Many of the gems he'd brought, others had been gifts and a kind way for the Afghans to thank us."
Several of those gems have since been mounted, one of which Miller's mother Maureen wears from a necklace, while a few others were turned into earrings worn by his sisters in memory of their oldest brother.
Brother in arms
While no one will ever know what Miller was truly, absolutely thinking when all hell broke loose, Martin, his teammates and the captain all believe what was going through their buddy's head was complete and utter concern for the team.
"I think we were all feeling concern for each other that night," said Martin. "I think in combat the biggest fear I have and I think the other guys have, is letting down the guy to the left and right. It's not getting shot; it's about doing the right thing and not letting our brothers down."
Philip Miller, Robby's father, said his wife, three other sons and four daughters knew a large part of Robby's responsibility was working and training with local nationals, and heard about some of the day-to-day activities. But the family didn't really hear too much about combat actions, because Robby didn't want to worry his family or divulge secrets about what he was doing specifically.
Between deployments at his parent's home in Ovieda, Fla., he would share photographs and video clips with his family - he loved the scenery of Afghanistan and talked about his passion for learning Pashto and sipping tea and interacting with the Afghans.
"He was enthusiastic about his involvement and what was going on in the country," his father remembered. "We're very, very proud and somewhat humbled, but very appreciative of those kind words we heard about our son's actions in Afghanistan, but it's more than that, it's the pride and satisfaction that one of your children did something so remarkable.
"All of us wonder if we can perform the same way and keep our head and do what we have to do in an extreme situation like that and take a calculated risk that you know you'll have to take and which may mean you won't survive," he said. "You start to look at all the stories of what people do, including the people in this same firefight and then you realize how remarkable it is that they're keeping their heads under incredible, intense, dangerous conditions and doing the right thing - it's amazing to imagine anybody could behave like that.
"I'd like everybody to remember that he loved what he was doing and he was very good at it; he was extremely enthusiastic about it and it was very clear he really embraced the work, the mission and the people he worked with, American and Afghan," Miller's father said.
"When we learned about the details of what Robby had done to receive the Medal of Honor nomination, we weren't surprised and we also weren't surprised at his reaction (in the field), because that was the sort of person he was, that's what his training taught him to do and be," said Miller's mother Maureen. "I think the fact that he died doing something that he loved and thought was worthwhile was an important factor in helping us deal with the situation."
"Rob always wanted to be a Soldier. I think there are several factors that influenced him to join the Army - one was his sense of adventure, another one was his sense of the importance of military service, it's something that runs in our family," she added. "Another important factor was Rob's sense of appreciation for the freedom and opportunity that we have in this country -- something he learned after hearing the stories when he was 8 or 9 of some friends who were Cambodian refugees."
"Being a stand-in and receiving the Medal of Honor on behalf of our son is obviously extremely important to us because it represents the gratitude of the country to one of their Soldiers who performed so well and effectively in combat," added Miller's father, who was also a Soldier. "Our son will become part of the written history of the United States."