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Jeralyn Merritt Headshot

The 'Marlboro Man' Marine Comes Home

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Remember the "Marlboro Man" marine? He's now 21, home from Iraq and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"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....The man in the photograph is James Blake Miller, now 21, and he is an icon, although in ways [Dan] Rather probably never imagined. He's quieter now -- easier to anger. He turns to fight at the sound of a backfire, can't look at fireworks without thinking of fire raining down on a city. He has trouble sleeping, and when he does, his fingers twitch on invisible triggers. The diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. "

After returning home and being diagnosed with PTSD by a military psychiatrist, the military still wasn't finished with him. They sent him to New Orleans to help bring law and order to the city in the wake of the Katrina disaster.

"I really didn't want to go. ... There was a possibility we would be shooting people," he said. "We could be going into another (urban warfare) environment just like Iraq, except this would actually be U.S. citizens. Here we go, Fallujah 2, right here in the states."

After Katrina, the military sent him to help with Hurricane Rita. While waiting for the storm to arrive, this happened:

One day, as Miller headed for the smoke deck with a Marlboro, a passing sailor made a whistling sound just like a rocket-propelled grenade. "I don't remember grabbing him. I don't remember putting him against the bulkhead. I don't remember getting him down on the floor. I don't remember getting on top of him. I don't remember doing any of that s -- ," Miller said. "That was like the last straw."

Finally, one year after his picture appeared, Miller received his honorable discharge. But his life is different. So is he.

The man who left was easygoing, quick to laugh, happy to sit in a relative's house and eat and smoke and talk. The man who came back is quick to anger, they say, and is quiet. He still smiles often but does not easily laugh. And when he takes a seat in his adoptive grandmother's home, amid her collection of ceramic Christ figurines, it is in a chair that faces the door. Mildred Childers, who owns those figurines, sees Miller's difficulties as a crisis of faith. She still remembers Miller's call just before the assault on Fallujah, and his terrible question: "How can people go to church and be a Christian and kill people in Iraq?"

Many of his fellow marines from Iraq are in equally bad, if not worse straits. Just like the Vietnam vets before them:

Recently, some of his Marine buddies have been calling Miller up, crying drunk, and remembering their war experiences. Just like Papaw Joe Lee used to do when Miller was a boy. "There's a lot of Vietnam vets ... they don't heal until 30, 40 years down the road," Miller said. "People bottle it up, become angry, easily temperamental, and hell, before you know it, these are the people who are snapping on you." [His wife] Jessica interrupted. "You're already like that," she said.

Miller's views on the war have changed a bit.

There was no time for such questions in Fallujah. But now, at night, when he can't sleep, Miller thinks of the men he saw through his rifle scope, and wonders: Were they terrorists fighting against America? Or men fighting to protect their homes? "I mean, how would we feel if they came over and started something here?" he asked. "I'm glad that I fought for my country. But looking back on it, I wouldn't do it all over again."

In 2005, a total of 317,000 vets were treated for PTSD.

Nearly 19,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were seen for the disorder in veterans' medical centers and Vet Centers from fiscal year 2002 to 2005.

Today, Reuters reports the military forced 50,000 soldiers to continue serving after their time was up under its stop-loss policy.

How is the military going to care for these soldiers in the long-term? They are casualties of war. A piece of them died over there. The cost of Bush's war just keeps getting higher and higher.

In March, it will be three years since the U.S. invaded Iraq. 2,241 members of our military have died and more than 15,000 troops have been wounded in action. We didn't find Osama. Saddam didn't have meaningful ties to al-Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction. We took out a tyrant and saved some Iraqis, but look what we did to our own in the process.

Enough already.

(Jeralyn Merritt blogs daily at TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime)