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His name is James Blake Miller, God Bless him.
(This photo of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller in Fallujah was published in more than 100 newspapers Wednesday.)

“Marlboro Man” Marine files for divorce

June 27, 2006
By Samira Jafari, Associated Press Writer
PIKEVILLE, Ky. — A Marine who was dubbed the “Marlboro Man” after appearing in an iconic photograph from the Iraq War has filed for divorce less than a month after dozens of Americans contributed to a dream wedding for him and his bride.
Millions became intrigued with James Blake Miller, 21, after seeing a 2004 Los Angeles Times photo in which the grubby, exhausted Marine lance corporal is pictured taking a break from combat in Fallujah with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Miller and his wife, Jessica Holbrook, were initially married at a county building in June 2005, but Miller had said in a Jan. 29 story in the San Francisco Chronicle that he wished he could give his wife the wedding she had always wanted. Readers responded by contributing toward a $15,000 wedding June 3 at a golf course clubhouse near his hometown of Pikeville.
But by June 12, Miller and his bride were living apart, according to court papers. Miller filed for divorce on June 20, saying the marriage was “irretrievably broken.”
Miller was discharged from the Marines in 2005 and has spoken in newspaper interviews about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often characterized by flashbacks, nervousness and nightmares.
“I’m just sad for them,” said Eunice Davis of Pleasanton, Calif., who spearheaded the contributions, which included a pair of wedding rings from a jeweler. “It must be a very difficult time and a very difficult decision.”
Miller and his wife have unlisted numbers and could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press on Monday. Miller’s attorney, Michael de Bourbon, declined to comment.
In Sunday’s Appalachian News-Express of Pikeville, Miller said he had filed for divorce, “but I’m still trying to resolve my problems with my wife.”
“I would like to start by saying I’m trying to take things one day at a time,” he continued. “I can’t stress enough what it’s like to deal with PTSD and every other day problems.”
Pikeville wedding planner Missy McCoy, who helped with the arrangements, said she was saddened by the news.
“They’ve been through a lot,” McCoy said. “They’re a sweet couple I hope they can work it out.”


Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer
June 11, 2006

Prestonsburg, Ky. — With a surgeon’s care, James Blake Miller adjusted the two rows of ribbons on the coat of his Marine Corps dress blues. Then he adjusted them again. And again.

He pulled on the coat, cinched the white belt that fit a bit more snugly than when he left the Marines in November, carefully adjusted the collar.

“After this,” he muttered, “I ain’t wearing the mother — again unless I’m buried in it.”

He slid a pack of Marlboros into a sock — nothing goes in the pockets of a Marine’s dress blues — and walked outside.

In the five months since The Chronicle revisited the story of Miller — who became known as the “Marlboro Man” after a photo of him smoking during a break in combat in Iraq was published in hundreds of newspapers in November 2004 — everything and nothing had happened to him and his wife, Jessica.

But on this day, June 3, Blake and Jessica were getting married — again. Through the generosity of neighbors in Pike County and strangers in the Bay Area, they would have the big wedding they had wanted but couldn’t afford a year ago, when they settled for a ceremony in a county building tucked behind an auction house.

Miller always said he spoke out about the terrible things he’d seen in battle and about the turmoil in his life since his discharge from the Marines with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder so that others would get help. And for a long time, he had declined offers from well-meaning strangers, falling back on his working-class values that said help is something you give yourself.

But in the end, Miller succumbed to a determined effort by friends and strangers to thank him for his service with more than words; people who saw him as a symbol of American troops fighting overseas; a war fought by men and women they thought deserved more.

In the end, Miller accepted those offers. But even as he adjusted his uniform and prepared to meet his bride under a floral gazebo, he still seemed to struggle with what he was being given.

“What do you say to someone who does something for you like that?” he would say, again and again. “What do you say?”

Reaching out

Miller’s story struck a chord with a public conflicted over the war in Iraq. Hundreds of people e-mailed The Chronicle; others wrote to Miller care of general delivery in Jonancy, the tiny hollow where his father lives.

One man rode with his wife on a motorcycle from Kansas and spent two days at a body shop in town, hoping the young veteran would stop by. When he failed to appear, the man drove away, leaving a message for him: “It will be all right.”

Some people knew little of the war, like a fisherman from Rhode Island who sent the Millers $20, saying he didn’t know anybody in the military and wanted a way to help. Some, like a Delaware mother who wrote that her Marine son committed suicide after his return from Iraq and thanked Miller for speaking out, knew too much.

Some wanted to do more than say thank you.

“I was so struck by the simplicity of Blake,” said Eunice Davis, a resident of Pleasanton who read about Miller in The Chronicle in January. Like many who contacted Miller, Davis opposed the war but supported the troops fighting it.

“He went through so much, and seems to want so little,” Davis said. “He didn’t wish for a Mercedes. He wanted a wedding and he wanted to please Jessica.”

When she finally tracked the Millers down, they seemed a little baffled, she said, by her question: Did they still want to have that big wedding?

“They absolutely did not know what to do with what I was saying to them,” said Davis, who remembered how people treated veterans returning from Vietnam and worried the same thing was happening again. “Blake kept saying, ‘I can’t let you spend that kind of money’ … he kept saying he wasn’t looking for handouts.”

While the Millers mulled, Davis began a quiet end-run around their reluctance. She called the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which gave her the number for a wedding planner in Pikeville.

“For about five or 10 minutes, I had no idea who she was talking about,” said Missy McCoy, a co-owner of Signature Events. “Then she said ‘Marlboro Man,’ and it all started coming together.”

Softening a hard road

The uncertainty Davis encountered in Miller’s feelings about his wedding was an indication of his life.

Since January, some things had gotten easier. After the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, that forced him out of the military, he had begun receiving disability payments, staving off the financial panic that had begun to consume the couple.

He and Jessica moved from her grandparents’ house into their own apartment over a furniture store in Pikeville, just off Highway 23, where coal trucks rumble day and night, not far from the high school they attended. Jessica was working as a dance instructor. They talked about going into real estate.

Like many young veterans, Miller also spent some of the benefit money on a treat: a Harley-Davidson Softail Standard motorcycle, the first bike he ever bought new, chrome dripping off an engine that roars like an idling rocket.

Jessica wasn’t too happy, and a newspaper story that mentioned the motorcycle drew a couple of nasty letters from folks accusing him of malingering on the public dime. Miller didn’t care.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I could get pissed off, get on the bike, and I didn’t have a care in the world,” he said. Now he spends many afternoons tooling through the mountains of eastern Kentucky, pumping his fist at passing coal trucks that respond with blasts of their horns and thinking as little as possible about the past.

“Sometimes, I think about how good it is to have a second chance to ride. Then I think about all the guys who didn’t get that chance. Then I just crack it,” he said, his hand opening up an imaginary throttle. “Best thing to do.”

It’s also one of his only things to do — Miller’s life, since he left the military, has become somewhat static. The disability checks have ensured his basic needs are met, but despite his continuing nightmares and waking visions, he has not had a therapy session since January. This month the VA scheduled him for his first follow-up after The Chronicle asked about his treatment.

He looked into a job with the police, he said, but was told he couldn’t be hired for an armed position because of his disability.

The VA will review Miller’s condition in January, and by then, he hopes, he will have recovered enough to get and hold a job. In the meantime, there are too many days when he wakes up with no reason to get out of bed, when it’s too easy to just lie in the dark listening to the coal trucks and thinking about the guys who aren’t receiving checks because they don’t know they need help; or the guys who just landed in Iraq and will never get help because they’re never coming home.

“It’s like a big guilt trip, day in and day out,” Miller whispered. “I just lie there and rot.”

As alone as he feels, what Miller experiences isn’t uncommon among returning vets, said Dr. Robert Huwieler, a clinical psychiatrist at the VA in Huntington, W.Va. Like Miller’s irritability, his nightmares and his memories, the guilt and the inertia are classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — as is a tendency to avoid contact, either by throwing oneself into work or by hiding from the world.

“The casual observer simply can’t see the wounds, and the veteran has a motivation to conceal them,” Huwieler said. “What we would like people to do is to be able to talk sooner.”

Miller doesn’t have a lot of folks to talk to. But lately he’s been having long talks with Luis Sinco, the Los Angeles Times photographer who took his famous photo in Fallujah. And he talks to the people who track him down.

“Being able to talk to those people …” he shook his head. “If they hadn’t sent me those letters, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Best laid plans

The days before the wedding gave Miller plenty of reasons to get out of bed: The last-minute crises that seem to accompany all weddings. A pastor unexpectedly canceled. Tuxedos and dresses needed alterations. Invitations never got mailed.

Miller hand-delivered one invitation two days before the wedding, pulling up at the home of Debbie Thomas with a roar.

Thomas’ son, Ernie, had joined the Marines with Miller and is still in the service. On the day of the wedding, he was scheduled to board the amphibious-assault ship Iwo Jima.

“Now the rumor is he’s going to be going to Iraq,” Thomas said. Miller was silent a moment, his eyes on the ground.

“I thought he was just supposed to be in the area, but stay on the ship,” he said.

“Well, now the rumor is he’s going,” she said.

In fact, none of Miller’s Marine friends were expected at the wedding. He and Jessica had kept pushing up the date, hoping they could hold the ceremony before anybody shipped out. But when they finally learned his friends’ ship dates, it was too late.

“It’s hurting him that he’s missing it,” Thomas said to Miller. “He wanted to be there.”

Miller replied, “He was going to be my best man.”

“And I guarantee that you’ll be his best man,” she said.

A proper wedding

Instead, Miller’s best man was Jeremy “Bobo” Tackett, a lifelong friend who grimaced as he worked his way into his tuxedo in the locker room of the golf course where the wedding was being held.

“I feel like a plus-sized Chippendale,” he grumbled.

Guests were arriving — friends, relatives, people from wildly different chapters of Miller’s story, gathered together on the same page.

Eunice Davis and her husband, Ron, finally met Jessica, who wore the white dress she had been saving for the occasion and a diamond-studded wedding ring donated by James Allen Schultz, a Maryland jeweler.

Eunice Davis gave the younger woman a lace Italian handkerchief. “It’s only for happy tears,” she said, which Jessica promptly provided as her uniformed husband looked on, smiling.

“These young men and women — God bless them,” Ron Davis said. “Not just the men and women that go, but the Jessicas of this world. She has to deal with the post-traumatic stress, but she does it smiling and with love. That’s courage.”

Not far away stood Sinco, the photographer whose offhand shot of Miller’s face — the last photo on a bad day — made Miller an icon.

“To this day, not a day passes when I don’t have a thought about Fallujah,” Sinco said later. “What separates me from Blake and all the other guys is I didn’t have to shoot anybody.”

He dragged on his cigarette.

“I’m a journalist; I’m not supposed to hope for an outcome to a story,” he said. “But just this once, I wish for a fairy-tale ending.”

Miller’s fellow Marines were not the only guests missing. His own father and brothers did not make it, pulled away by the demands of work in a paycheck-to-paycheck life.

In the end, though, the wedding came off without a hitch, well-stocked not only by the Davis’ contributions but by donations from local businesses. Cooks set out chafing dishes filled with pulled pork and prepared a chocolate fountain; a local rising bluegrass star, Bo Isaacs, tuned his guitar; a bartender laid in a supply of Corona and tucked away a quart jar of moonshine.

At the appointed time, Jessica’s “papaw,” Hursel Fouts, guided the bride to her uniformed groom waiting under a floral gazebo. Pastor James Cantrell read the vows as the couple wept and smiled and “I do”-ed in the right places. At the end they walked off together through a shower of applause, toward a hill where an American flag turned ruddy in the sunset.

Words hold gravity

Within days, the Millers were on a plane to Washington. The National Mental Health Association, an advocacy group, had asked Blake to tell his story on Capitol Hill to try to persuade lawmakers to boost funding for veterans with post-traumatic stress.

In the marbled halls of Congress, he was greeted as something of a celebrity — and a mental health expert.

“I’ve read a lot about you,” said Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee that handles health issues, gripping Miller’s hand as he entered his office.

Sitting across from each other, the congressman and the ex-Marine were an incongruous pair. Michaud, a silver-haired two-term lawmaker, was dressed in a standard-issue dark blue suit and red power tie. Miller, with the high-and-tight haircut he got for the wedding and a day-old beard, looked more like a country-and-western singer in his cowboy boots, blue jeans, striped shirt and sport coat.

But it was Michaud who spent most of the hour peppering the 21-year-old Kentucky native with questions: How did Veterans Affairs treat you? Are there enough services in rural Kentucky? Have you read my bill to increase counseling for vets with post-traumatic stress?

Miller was polite, constantly calling the lawmaker “sir,” but also blunt, especially when talking about the failure of the VA to adequately treat post-traumatic stress. He described how he couldn’t get an appointment to see a psychologist for five months.

“It’s upsetting because there are veterans out there who want to get this s — out, who want to have it fixed as best as possible,” Miller said. “Some things you can’t ever get rid of and you can’t ever be cured of. You can’t run away from it and you can’t hardly deal with it.”

His eyes turned watery as he explained how he sought treatment after he started having blackouts. He was afraid that, in a dark moment, he might hurt Jessica. He’d heard similar stories from other troops back from Iraq.

“Take any loved one you have — can you imagine waking up in the middle of the night to realize that you had harmed them in some way?” he said.

Jessica, who recently received her degree in psychology, told Michaud that, in many cases, wives and other family members must persuade veterans to ask for help.

“Usually Marines or soldiers will see it as a sign of weakness, so often it’s going to take someone else,” she said.

As they left, Michaud urged Miller to continue to speak out — to lawmakers, to VA officials, to his fellow veterans. “You shouldn’t underestimate yourself as one individual, what you can accomplish. You telling your story is really powerful.”

It’s the kind of thing Miller has heard often over the past five months: that telling his story to the world is helping other vets who lack his ability to speak out despite the pain and the pride. He always appreciates the kind words, but wonders if the people who say it aren’t missing the point.

“It’s not what I can do to help people,” he would say. “It’s what everybody else can do.”

See the photos!

‘Marlboro Man’ Marine Describes Struggle With PTSD
Marine Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Tells His Story
You may know him from the iconic photograph, showing the exasperation and grit of a U.S. Marine.

Welcome Home!

Welcome Home!

Former Marine is “Marlboro Man” no more
January 22, 2006
Jim Warren

LONG FORK, Ky. — The steep mountainsides in western Pike County are painted in the drabbest of winter browns and grays now, but already there is a feeling in the air that the land is ready to break out with spring color.

Maybe that’s a good omen for a young man back home after a tour in Iraq but still struggling to cope with the psychological shocks that cut short his career in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Millions of Americans remember him only as the “Marlboro Man”: the grubby, exhausted Marine lance corporal with a cigarette dangling from his lips in a famous 2004 photograph from the battle for Fallujah. The picture became one of the iconic images of the Iraq war.

Around Pike County, though, he’s just plain Blake Miller, 21, and a civilian again. Today, he’s intent on getting over the blackouts and the nightmares, and building a new life with his new wife, Jessica.

And the man whose image became a symbol of the war now wrestles with his own feelings about the conflict.

Today, he doesn’t look much like that 2004 photograph. He’s clean-cut, with brown hair and a thin mustache, still close to his high-school football playing weight of 155. He still smokes a little more than a pack of Marlboros a day but has cut down from the five packs he was burning through every day at the height of the Fallujah battle.

He carries some shrapnel scars — and some scars you can’t see.

“I could tell you stories about Iraq that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he said. “And I could tell you things that were great over there. But that still wouldn’t tell you what it was actually like. You had to be there and go through it to really understand.”

Psychological impact

Miller said he began having problems soon after returning from Iraq last year: sleeplessness, nightmares, times when he would “blank out,” not knowing what he was doing or where he was.

Just after Hurricane Katrina last fall, Miller was sent to New Orleans, where he and other Marines waded through flooded neighborhoods, recovering bodies. Along the way, the stresses piled up, and they boiled over a few days later while Miller was on board the USS Iwo Jima, a Navy ship on hurricane duty off the Gulf Coast.

“I was coming out of the galley, when this sailor made a whistling noise that resembled the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade,” Miller said. “You had to have heard that sound to duplicate it. I don’t know why he did it. Maybe he was just poking fun at Marines. But something just triggered and I flipped out.

“They said that I grabbed him, threw him against the bulkhead and put him down on the deck, with me on top of him. But I have no recollection of it whatsoever.”

There had been some other incidents. Eventually, three military psychiatrists diagnosed Miller as having post-traumatic stress disorder. The Marines, concluding Miller could be a threat to himself or to his teammates in any future combat situation, granted him an early but honorable discharge.

Miller became a civilian Nov. 10, the one-year anniversary of the date the photograph from Fallujah hit the newspapers.

“At first, I was irate because I wanted to stay in and make a career out of it,” he said. “I liked being a Marine … But I decided that this is what I’m stuck with, so I’ve got to deal with it.”

Now, Miller regularly sees a therapist (the government is picking up the bill) and he said he is doing well. He wants the public to better understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and realize that those who have it don’t deserve public stigma.

“The biggest reason I did this interview is because I want people to know that PTSD is not something people come down with because they’re crazy. It’s an anxiety disorder, where you’ve experienced something so traumatic that you were close to death.

“A lot of Vietnam vets suffered from PTSD, but nobody took the time to understand or help them. Now, some of those guys are living on the street. You look at their situation, and you think about what they did for their country and where they are now … that hurts.”

Doubts over war

He has gone through other changes, including doubts about the war.

“When I was in the service, my opinion was whatever the commander in chief’s opinion was,” he said. “But after I got out, I really started thinking about it. … The biggest question I have is how you can make war on an entire country, when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It’s as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew up some stuff, and Iraq started a war against us because of that.

“I agree with taking care of terrorism. But after terrorism was dealt with, the way it was after Fallujah, maybe that was the time for us to pull out. That’s just my opinion. It blows my mind that we’ve continued to drag this out.”

James Blake Miller grew up in Pike County, the oldest of three active, athletic brothers. He decided very early that, like his grandfather, he would become a Marine.

Greg Napier, Miller’s football coach at Shelby Valley High School, recalls that when he asked new students to list their career goals, Miller wrote: U.S. Marine Corps. He said Miller worked so hard compensating for his lack of size that he injured his shoulder lifting weights and had to give up football.

“I think that was the saddest I ever saw him,” Napier said. “He was afraid he wouldn’t get into the Marines because of his shoulder, but they did take him.”

Miller joined the Marines after graduating in 2003 and was assigned to the infantry. He went to Iraq the next year with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and became a part of the Marine force assembled to clear insurgents out of Fallujah. The monthlong operation is remembered as perhaps the toughest of the war.

Even now, Miller struggles trying to describe it.

“You see movies where somebody gets shot. It’s nothing to see somebody get shot; that’s just a movie.

“But when you see it in real life, it’s completely different … the feeling you have afterward is completely different. Even when you’re being shot at, and you’re returning fire … whether you’ve hit anybody or not … it’s knowing that you’re actually shooting at somebody. At the time you don’t think about it… but afterward, it’s mind-boggling, it really is.”

On the second day of the battle, Miller and some buddies found themselves on the roof of a building, under heavy sniper fire. Into the action rushed Luis Sinco, a Los Angeles Times photographer embedded with Miller’s outfit.

“We had no idea he was coming up the stairs; in fact, we almost shot him,” Miller said. “But when he got up there, he decided to snap some pictures.”

Sinco recalls that he took cover behind a wall and that a Marine came over, sat down beside him and lit a cigarette. It was Miller. Sinco raised his camera and fired the shutter.

When Sinco got ready to electronically transmit his photos back to the Los Angeles Times later that night, he wasn’t very impressed with the picture. It was just another shot of another Marine. Indeed, it was the last picture he selected to send that day. It turned out to be perhaps the most memorable picture of the war so far.

Sinco, who has stayed in touch with Miller, said he thought his editors would be more interested in action pictures.

“But somehow that portrait just resonated with everyone who saw it,” Sinco said. “It’s as if all the emotions of the war converged on Blake’s face at that moment: bravery, doubt, hope, fatigue, despair. It’s all written on his face.”

The photo was carried in more than 100 U.S. newspapers, including The Seattle Times, put on national television, and published all over the world.

“Famous Marine”

Shortly after the photograph appeared, he was told that Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, was on the way to see him.

“The general said, ‘You’re a pretty famous Marine today,’ ” Miller recalled. “I said, ‘With all due respect, sir, I don’t understand what’s going on.’ He said, ‘Your picture is all over the United States right now. They were saying the picture would go into history books,’ and I thought that they were joking.”

Sinco said the Marine Corps offered to pull Miller out of the Fallujah battle then, not wanting the suddenly famous Marine to be injured or killed. But Miller refused.

His mother said he insisted he was no hero and wanted no hoopla.

He and Jessica married in June. Problems with post-traumatic stress have cast a cloud over what has been an otherwise joyous time for the two. Nevertheless, they are looking to the future. Blake is thinking of starting a business.

He and Jessica live with her grandparents in western Pike County. They plan to build a home nearby.

“Right now,” Miller said, “I’m just glad to be here.”

An Internal Battle
1/29/06 By Matthew B. Stannard
Pike County, Ky. — BATTLE SCARS: The photo of the ‘Marlboro Man’ in Fallujah became a symbol of the Iraq conflict when it ran in newspapers across America in 2004. Now the soldier has returned home to Kentucky,where he battles the demons of post-traumatic stress

Iconic images inspire love and hate, and so it is with the photograph of James Blake Miller, the 20-year-old marine from Appalachia, who has been christened “the face of Falluja” by pro-war pundits, and the “the Marlboro man” by pretty much everyone else. Reprinted in more than a hundred newspapers, the Los Angeles Times photograph shows Miller “after more than 12 hours of nearly non-stop, deadly combat” in Falluja, his face coated in war paint, a bloody scratch on his nose, and a freshly lit cigarette hanging from his lips. Gazing lovingly at Miller, the CBS News anchor Dan Rather informed his viewers: “For me, this one’s personal. This is a warrior with his eyes on the far horizon, scanning for danger. See it. Study it. Absorb it. Think about it. Then take a deep breath of pride. And if your eyes don’t dampen, you’re a better man or woman than I” … For a country that just elected a wannabe Marlboro man as its president, Miller is an icon and, as if to prove it, he has ignited his very own controversy. “Lots of children, particularly boys, play army, and like to imitate this young man. The clear message of the photo is that the way to relax after a battle is with a cigarette,” wrote Daniel Maloney in a scolding letter to the Houston Chronicle. Linda Ortman made the same point to the editors of the Dallas Morning News: “Are there no photos of non-smoking soldiers?” A reader of the New York Post helpfully suggested more politically correct propaganda imagery: “Maybe showing a marine in a tank, helping another GI or drinking water would have a more positive impact on your readers.” Yes, that’s right: letter writers from across the nation are united in their outrage – not that the steely-eyed, smoking soldier makes mass killing look cool, but that the laudable act of mass killing makes the grave crime of smoking look cool ..
Naomi Klein


February 8, 2005

BLAKE Miller, the cigarette-smoking Marine dubbed “The Face of the War” after The Post splashed his combat-hardened visage on its cover, is now talking about his tour of duty in Iraq.
“I lost a few of some of my dearest friends,” Miller, a lance corporal, says on today’s “Early Show” (7-9 a.m./Ch. 2).

It is Miller’s first TV interview since the end of his tour of duty in Iraq and his return to the States.

“People don’t understand how you can be so close to someone that you’ve only known for such a short time,” Miller says.

“But when you spend a year and a half with someone, you know some things about them their own family doesn’t even know.”

Miller became the symbol of the tough, determined U.S. troops when a picture of his dirt-and-blood-streaked face ran on the cover of The Post last November while the Marines were battling for control of Fallujah.

In the photo, Miller was clenching a cigarette in his teeth — and he became known as “The Face of the War.”

Miller tells Smith that he considers his fellow Marines a “brotherhood.”

“People say that the Marine Corps is a brotherhood, and you truly do not realize that until you actually need your brothers, and that’s when they’re there,” he says.

He also says he’s glad to be home after his tour in Iraq.

“It’s amazing. Marines don’t share very much emotion, even in rough times, but it’s nice to know you can come home and share that,” he says.

Marine Whose Photo Lit Up Imaginations Keeps His Cool

November 13, 2004
By Patrick J. McDonnell, Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — The Marlboro man is angry: He has a war to fight and he’s running out of smokes.

“If you want to write something,” he tells an intruding reporter, “tell Marlboro I’m down to four packs and I’m here in Fallouja till who knows when. Maybe they can send some. And they can bring down the price a bit.”

Such are the unvarnished sentiments of Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, 20, a country boy from Kentucky who has been thrust unwittingly and somewhat unwillingly into the role of poster boy for a war on the other side of the world from his home on the farm.

“I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” Miller drawls Friday as he crouches inside an abandoned building with his platoon mates, preparing to fight insurgents holed up in yet another mosque. “I was just smokin’ a cigarette and someone takes my picture and it all blows up.”

Miller is the young man whose gritty, war-hardened portrait appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times, taken by Luis Sinco, a Times photographer traveling with Miller’s unit: Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

In the full-frame photo, taken after more than 12 hours of nearly nonstop deadly combat, Miller’s camouflage war paint is smudged. He sports a bloody nick on his nose. His helmet and chin strap frame a weary expression that seems to convey the timeless fatigue of battle.

And there is the cigarette, of course, drooping from the right side of his mouth in a manner that Bogart or John Wayne would have approved of. Wispy smoke drifts off to his left.

The image, printed in more than 100 newspapers, has quickly moved into the realm of the iconic.

That Miller’s name was not included in the caption material only seemed to enhance the photograph’s punch.

The Los Angeles Times and other publications have received scores of e-mails wanting to know about this mysterious figure. Many women, in particular, have inquired about how to contact him.

“The photo captures his weariness yet his eyes hold the spirit of the hunter and the hunted,” wrote one admirer in an e-mail. “His gaze is warm but deadly. I want to send a letter.”

The photo seems to have struck a chord, as an image of America striking back at a perceived enemy, or just one young man putting his life on the line halfway across the globe.

Whatever the case, top Marine brass are thrilled.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, dropped in Friday on Charlie Company to laud the featured unit.

“That’s a great picture,” echoed Col. Craig Tucker, who heads the regimental combat team that includes Miller’s battalion. “We’re having one blown up and sent over to the unit.”

Miller, though, has been oddly left out of the hoopla.

Sattler did not single him out during his visit. In fact, Miller only heard about it from the two Los Angeles Times staffers traveling with his unit.

He seemed incredulous.

“A picture?” he asks. “What’s the fuss?”

What does he think about the Marines, anyway?

“I already signed the papers, so I got no choice but to do what we’re doing.”

The photo was taken the afternoon after Charlie Company’s harrowing entry into Fallouja under intense hostile fire, in the cold and rain. Miller was on the roof of a home where he and his fellow 1st Platoon members had spent the day engaged in practically nonstop firefights, fending off snipers and attackers who rushed the building. No one had slept in more than 24 hours. All were physically and emotionally drained.

“It was kind of crazy out here at first,” Miller says. “No one really knew what to expect. They told us about it all the time, but no one knows for sure until you get here.”

In person, he is unassuming: of medium height, his face slightly pimpled, his teeth a little crooked.

Miller takes his share of ribbing as a small-towner in a unit that includes Marines from big cities.

And it has only increased as word of the platoon radio man’s instant fame has spread among his mates.

“Miller, when you get home you’ll be a hero,” Cpl. Mark Waller, 21, from Oklahoma, says.

Miller is now obliged to provide smokes to just about anyone who asks. It’s just about wiped out his stash.

“When we came to Fallouja I had two cartons and three packs,” Miller said glumly, adding that his supply had dwindled to a mere four packs — not much for a Marine with a three-pack-a day habit. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Even in the Marines, where smoking is widespread, the extent of Miller’s habit has raised eyebrows.

“I tried to get him to stop — the cigarettes will kill him before the war,” says Navy Corpsman Anthony Lopez, a company medic.

Miller, who was sent to Iraq in June, is the eldest of three brothers from the hamlet of Jonancy, Ky., in the heart of Appalachian coal country.

Never heard of Jonancy?

“It’s named after my greatgreat-great grandparents: Joe and Nancy Miller,” the Marine explained. “They were the first people in those parts.”

His father, James Miller, is a mechanic and farmer, and the young Miller grew up working crops: potatoes, corn, green beans.

His mother, Maxie Webber, 39, is a nurse. She last talked to her son Sunday via a satellite phone. He could only speak for a few minutes, long enough to say hello and reassure his family.

After the U.S. attack on Fallouja began Monday, family members waited for some message that he was alive. Days later, they sat in shock as newscaster Dan Rather talked about The Times’ photograph. Who is this man, Rather asked, with the tired eyes and a look of determination?

“I screamed at the TV, ‘That’s my son!’ ” Webber said.

Others in Jonancy, including his own father, didn’t recognize the camouflaged and bloodied man as the boy they knew.

“He had that stuff on his face. And the expression, that look,” said Rodney Rowe, Miller’s high school basketball coach. “Those are not the eyes I’m used to seeing in his face.”

Back in high school, Miller was an athlete, joining every team that played a sport involving a ball. The school, Shelby Valley High, is located in Pikeville, the nearest town of any consequence and the home of an annual three-day spring festival called “Hillbilly Days.”

Miller was somewhat unsure what to do with himself after high school. His father never wanted him to work in the mines.

“He would have been disappointed if I did that,” Miller says. “He told me it was awful work.”

So Miller enlisted in the Marines in July 2003 after a conversation with a recruiter he met at a football game.

“What I really wanted to do was auto body repair,” he says. “But before I knew it, I was in boot camp.”

Now, he says, he is just trying to get through each day. His predecessor as platoon radio man was sent home after being injured in a car bomb attack.

Miller has three years remaining in active duty, but he appears disinclined to reenlist.

And he shrugs off suggestions he may cash in on his fame. “When I get out, I just want to chill out a little bit,” he says. “Go back to my house, farm a little bit, do some mechanical stuff around the house and call it a day.”

Oh, and one more thing: “I’ll just sit on my roof and smoke a cigarette.”

McDonnell is traveling with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, in Fallouja. Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report.,0,5449010.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Most look past the smoke, laud photo of weary Marine

By Mike Needs, Public Editor
Nov. 14, 2004

“Why the front-page photo of a soldier with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth?” asked John H. Ramey of Akron. “One would hope that the editors had more sense than to show willfully negligent behavior on the part of a service person on the front page.”

Dan McClusky of Akron agreed: “I want you to pass congratulations to the person who chose that front-page picture. You just convinced 10,000 young people that it’s OK to smoke.

“I have one simple objection, and it’s not about the Marine. You could have picked another photo that didn’t show smoking as looking so good.”

If you saw Wednesday’s front-page Iraq coverage, you probably remember the remarkable photo (right) criticized by Ramey, McClusky and several others. Taken by a photographer for the Los Angeles Times, the in-your-face photo of a bone-tired Marine in Fallujah said volumes about the hellish difficulties of war. In almost WWII-like imagery, it included a dangling cigarette, the smoke swirling up around his dirt-crusted face and battle-worn helmet.

Provocative, captivating, perhaps even disturbing — the photo also prompted praise.

“It’s a picture that spoke to me,” said Carol Johnson of Fairlawn. “It said, this is a soldier, bone-weary, taking a break, but `Mom, I’m OK.’ ”

Gillian Neilsen of Akron described it as touching. “It just hit a chord with me. It’s a very sad photo, but I liked it.”

During my conversation with Neilsen, she mentioned that she lost two brothers to battlefield injuries. What about the cigarette? “I wasn’t bothered at all by it,” she replied. “War is hell — what can you say?”

When I asked a group of readers who often comment on the paper to react to the photo, nearly all applauded it.

“I thought the picture of the Marine was excellent,” said Jim Miller of Akron. “It showed the real face of war — the emptiness, fatigue and loneliness probably faced by all combat veterans.”

From John Paparella of Norton: “His expression vividly depicts the reality of the frontline dogfoot — tired, dirty, running on nicotine, adrenaline and a sixth sense of survival in the face of an elusive, deadly, indiscernible enemy.”

The Marine, later identified as Lance Cpl. Blake Miller of Kentucky, drew this reaction from Mary Ann Ferguson- Rich of Tallmadge: “He is a young man and yet all the world weariness of someone at the end of a long, difficult life looks out at us from his eyes. He is tired, a down-to-the-bone type of exhaustion that the nicotine of a dozen cigarettes is not going to alleviate.”

Newsroom editors expressed only approval for the photo.

One cited the “strong emotional pull, close and intimate.” Another noted the intensity in his eyes, calling the Marine “a modern-day Robert Mitchum.” Another said, “You can almost feel what he feels. This is war. This is real life.”

But cigarettes need not be part of that real life, at least, for one reader who identified herself only as Elizabeth in her message. Her sons, like most teens, get a mixed message from the media, she said. Everywhere they hear that smoking harms your health. Then they see this photo.

“These soldiers are heroes to them,” she said. “What are they supposed to think?”

Yes, it is difficult for parents to protect their teen-agers from the temptation of smoking, a nasty habit learned in youth that can grow into a gruesome and often deadly disease.

What are Elizabeth’s kids supposed to think? Perhaps they should look at the photo and consider these comments from reader Sieglinde Hays of Fairlawn.

“That Marine has been on my mind since I first saw his picture at 6:30 a.m. yesterday,” she wrote in a Thursday e-mail. “His image is haunting to me. I can see his face as I write to you.

“This year when I sit down to my Thanksgiving dinner, I will remember him when I thank God for what He blessed me with in 2004.

“I will remember that Marine is over there, far away from home, eating dinner — if he is lucky — with his comrades. I will remember those who did leave in a box or returned without a limb and pray that the Marine will not be among them.

“I will remember his eyes, brown and staring in the distance and wonder what he saw. I will thank the Lord that He saved me from not seeing people dying, like this Marine did.

“I will remember the blood and dirt on his face and be thankful I can go home and bathe, while he did not have the privilege. I will remember that this Marine looked tired and had to keep going, while I can go home and rest.”

Yes, once you look at the grime on his face, the grit packed in his ears, the blood on his nose, the pain and exhaustion in his eyes — well, in this poignant portrait of war, I don’t even see the cigarette anymore.

November 14, 2004 — THE ISSUE: The Post’s Wednesday cover, picturing a Marine smoking in Fallujah.

In response to the people who were critical of The Post’s front page showing an American soldier smoking a cigarette (“Fighting for Freedom: Smokin’ in Fallujah,” Letters, Nov. 11): While I in no way encourage the promotion of smoking, we are talking about a U.S soldier in combat risking his life for all of us.

If having a cigarette even remotely made him feel a little better, then who are you to be bothered by this?
This is a war, not an opportunity for you to make a public service announcement.
Steve Naclerio


That great photo of one of our tough Marines smoking a cigarette must have infuriated chief New York City nanny Michael Bloomberg.
The anti-smoking crowd can’t sleep at night worrying that somewhere someone might be relaxing and enjoying themselves and having a smoke — even in Fallujah.
Harriet Rubin
The Bronx


I, along with many readers, was very moved by the photo of the Marine.
My son is leaving for a tour in Iraq, giving the soldiers over there now a welcome break.
The Post is where I find the best coverage of the war in Iraq.
Kim Raggo
New Rochelle

Photo brings war up close
Houston Chronicle
November 10, 2004

Just call him ‘American hero’
Wow! Thanks to the editor who decided to run the picture of the 1st Division Marine on Page One Nov. 10. ADVERTISEMENT
This was the most poignant and memorable photo I can recall seeing since the 1945 flag-raising at Iwo Jima. The only title necessary is “American Hero.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Smoking is more likely to kill
I was shocked to see the large photograph on Nov. 10. A tired, dirty and brave Marine rests after a battle — but with a cigarette dangling from his mouth! Lots of children, particularly boys, play “army” and like to imitate this young man. The clear message of the photo is that the way to relax after a battle is with a cigarette.
The truth is very different from that message. Most of our troops don’t smoke. And most importantly, this young man is far more likely to die a horrible death from his tobacco addiction than from his tour of duty in Iraq.
The Woodlands
Marines’ gear includes cigs?
I opened the Chronicle this morning and got slapped in the face by a huge picture of a “battle weary” Marine with a fine looking cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
I respect everyone’s rights, but do we really need to encourage our young people to think that this is part of required military gear?
League City
Responses to conservative voice

Only slim majority
At this moment, American troops are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent the next fundamentalist Islamic theocracies.
Meanwhile, on the home front, opinions such as those expressed by Frank Pastore in his Nov. 10 Outlook article, “Christian conservatives must not compromise / One nation, under a God the liberals reject,” urge us toward a fundamentalist theocracy of our own.
If I read the election results correctly, nearly as many people opposed to the current administration voted as those who supported President Bush. This refutes Pastore’s view that “the left hates the ballot box.” A slim majority of the people voted one way instead of the other.
I deeply value my voting rights. I also value my right to determine for myself what it means to be a patriot and a Christian.
For now, I suggest that the best way to support our troops on the battlefield is to not become our “enemy” here at home.
Sugar Land
Bad sports
Frank Pastore’s rant was one of the most simple-minded, pathetic and malicious pieces of paranoia I have ever read. This piece from Pastore (a former baseball player who now has his own radio bully pulpit) clearly illustrates the hazards of looking to athletes as spiritual authorities.
Respectful dialogue
Frank Pastore wrote, ” … We are against false ideas that hold good people captive.” Well, OK. How about the idea that the world was created in six days?
I have no objection to anyone believing anything he or she wishes, I simply wish the same opportunity.
The so-called Christian right has hijacked Christianity just as Muslim fundamentalists have hijacked Islam.
As a man who loves God, family and country, I object to the notion that I (to use Pastore’s words) “vomit upon the morals, values and traditions we hold sacred.” No! I simply have a different understanding of Scripture and what it means to be a Christian.
Pastore claims, “We are exceptional. We are unique.” Again, no. We are all the same.
If we are to progress as a species, we will have to move beyond “tribal-survival thinking” and learn to respect others and their differing ideas about religion. Perhaps even enter into a meaningful dialogue to determine which of the values we each espouse will produce the highest good for all humanity.
Extremists rule now
For several years, I have been asking the women at my church and all my friends to pray for the women and children who had to live under the Taliban, especially that they might find a way of escaping such harsh rule. I am terrified now that this country is becoming a Christian Taliban, where only extremists are making the moral rules by which the rest of us will have to live. I read examples of this in the Chronicle daily. Now, I am praying for our freedoms.
Dowd: Why one blue’s gone red
For the first time in my life I voted for a Republican president. Maureen Dowd’s Nov. 6 column, “Don’t look for healing, reconciliation from this bunch,” was offensive to me. I have two sons-in-law who are on active duty (one in Afghanistan) facing the reality of jihad every day, and her casual use of the term demeans their service.
Dowd should realize that one of the reasons many former “blues” went “red” is the result of her (and others like her) over-the-top inflammatory remarks. Never have I read such disrespect directed toward our leaders. Four years of “stupid, liar, cuckoo clock, deserter” was all this former blue voter could stand. Somehow, there must be a standard of decency applied to disagreement.

The Dregs of Puritanism

November 15, 2004
Here’s a follow-up on the story we noted Friday about the famous photo of a smoking Marine: The Los Angeles Times reports he is Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller, a 20-year-old native of Jonancey, Ky. Times photographer Luis Sinco snapped the picture that has turned Miller into something of a sex symbol:

The Los Angeles Times and other publications have received scores of e-mails wanting to know about this mysterious figure. Many women, in particular, have inquired about how to contact him. “The photo captures his weariness, yet his eyes hold the spirit of the hunter and the hunted,” wrote one e-mailing admirer. “His gaze is warm but deadly. I want to send a letter.”

Blake complains that he’s running low on cigarettes: “Tell Marlboro I’m down to four packs, and I’m here in Fallujah till who knows when. Maybe they can send some. And they can bring down the price a bit.” Miller smokes three packs a day, and the company medic, Anthony Lopez, tells the paper: “I tried to get him to stop–the cigarettes will kill him before the war. I get on him all the time. But this guy is a true Marlboro man.”

Lopez is right, of course, but that doesn’t make Linda Ortman any less ridiculous. Ortman’s scolding letter appeared in the Dallas Morning News Thursday (third letter):

Are there no photos of nonsmoking soldiers in Iraq?

We are all aware of how important it is to help people stop smoking because of health risks.

Please, Dallas Morning News, be more sensitive. Youth are easily influenced. Let’s stop reinforcing the smoking habit. Stop publishing photos like the one on the front page Wednesday.

The next day, a wonderful reply came from Steven Mitchell (third letter):

As an ex-smoker and ex-Marine, I have to agree with Ms. Ortman about how easily our youth are influenced. As soon as I made it home Wednesday afternoon, my 10-year-old asked me to take him to buy a pack of Camels and find the nearest recruiter’s office. And, please, can’t we get them to wash their faces first?

In truth, I’m amazed that you printed that nonsense.

The fuss over smoking warriors is nothing new. In 1917 G.K. Chesterton published an essay called “The Dregs of Puritanism” about a minister in Bromley, England, who was objecting to people sending cigarettes to British soldiers fighting World War I:

There is the lack of imaginative proportion, which rises into a sort of towering blasphemy. An enormous number of live young men are being hurt by shells, hurt by bullets, hurt by fever and hunger and horror of hope deferred; hurt by lance blades and sword blades and bayonet blades breaking into the bloody house of life. But Mr. Price (I think that’s his name) is still anxious that they should not be hurt by cigarettes. That is the sort of maniacal isolation that can be found in the deserts of Bromley.

These days, of course, fanaticism over hygiene is a largely secular phenomenon. Indeed, one wonders if some of those who’re offended by Cpl. Miller’s vice won’t soon be complaining that this photo violates the separation of church and state.

Tobacco Finally Gets a Win. Talk about early Christmas presents. At a time when smokers are considered barely more tolerable than convicted child molesters, a Los Angeles Times photographer snapped a young Marine in Fallujah with a cigarette dangling from his battle-scarred mug, and instantly we’re back in Marlboro Country again.

Mom Wants Icon Son To Return Safe.
For a nation, the arresting image of Marine Lance Cpl. Blake Miller has made him an icon – the face of the war in Iraq.

Happy 229th Birthday to the United States Marine Corps!

Veterans Day: Truth and Thoughts.

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