Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller shouted for his team to fall back to a safer position and then he pushed ahead, towards an overwhelming ambush involving more than 140 enemy fighters in fortified positions.
On Jan. 25, 2008, Miller sacrificed his own life so that his Special Forces team and Afghan allies would survive. It’s an act that would be honored with the U.S. military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.
A little more than a decade after his death, Miller was honored at Fort Bragg on Saturday.
There, hundreds of soldiers and family members with the 3rd Special Forces Group paid tribute to the fallen hero by emulating his actions near Gowardesh, Afghanistan years ago.
Like Miller, those who chose to honor him ran forward on Saturday as part of the first Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller Memorial Run – a four-mile course centered on the 3rd Special Forces Group’s headquarters.
The course began at Miller Hall, the headquarters building named for the Medal of Honor recipient. It ended on the 3rd Special Forces Group’s Memorial Walk, next to a stone laid in tribute to Miller.
Command Sgt. Maj. Bruce W. Holmes, the senior enlisted leader for the group, said there are nearly 50 soldiers memorialized on the walk who have been killed overseas since the start of the war on terror.
Each morning, 3rd Special Forces Group leaders walk by the stones and look at the names as a reminder of the sacrifices that have been made as part of that fight, which includes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Miller’s sacrifice allowed his teammates to live, Holmes said. In return, 3rd Group is charged with honoring Miller’s legacy and ensuring his sacrifice is not forgotten.
He repeated an oft-heard phrase within the group, attributed to their commander, Col. Bradley Moses: “Honor the fallen. Continue the mission.”
In Afghanistan in January 2008, Miller’s mission was to conduct a reconnaissance patrol in a valley that was a known enemy safe haven, according to an official narrative that accompanied his Medal of Honor citation.
He led the way for Operational Detachment Alpha 3312 and its team of Afghan allies. When the troops were ambushed by a large enemy force armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and PKM machine guns, Miller called for them to seek safety while he charged ahead up snow-covered mountain rock.
Miller drew the brunt of the enemy attack.
His team lost him in a wash of dust and rock, kicked up by the hailstorm of enemy fire. But even unseen, those soldiers could hear Miller on his radio, calling out enemy positions.
Sometime during the seven-hour battle, Miller died.
Members of the present-day ODA 3312 stopped at Miller’s memorial stone after completing the run. Kneeling, each member placed a small coin bearing an image of Miller on a horse and a Medal of Honor on the stone before stepping away.
The current detachment commander said the team organized the memorial run to honor a legend and said officials hoped the event becomes an annual tribute.
“It’s not a race,” the detachment commander said. “It’s to reflect on his legacy of service.”
There was no entry fee for the run. No timers. And every finisher received a challenge coin with Miller’s likeness.
More than anyone else, the detachment commander said Miller has set the standard for modern members of the team to emulate.
Miller’s legacy looms large not only within 3rd Special Forces Group, but in the larger special operations community on Fort Bragg, said Command Sgt. Maj. Pat Rotsaert.
Rotsaert, a battalion command sergeant major within the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, previously served as Miller’s team sergeant.
He recalled the young Green Beret as an energetic young man with an oversized love of life, a desire to learn and an uncommon focus.
“He was the epitome of a great teammate,” Rotsaert said of Miller. “The first in and the last to leave.”
Speaking ahead of the run, Rotsaert shared stories from his time with Miller.
He spoke of Miller’s first run with the team, how he had been released from the hospital that morning but insisted on training with the ODA regardless of his physical health.
He recalled Miller’s first firefight, during a 2006 deployment, and how he reacted without hesitation.
“We knew he had something special,” Rotsaert said.
Today’s Special Forces soldiers could learn a lot from Miller, Rotsaert said.
“Just his work ethic was amazing,” he said. “He liked to grind. He could speak roughly five languages. And he always had his note in a book.”
Other soldiers earn their Green Beret and think they have it made, Rotsaert said. But not Miller. He knew the training didn’t stop and that there was always room to improve.
But more importantly, Miller knew how to live, Rotsaert said.
During time off, Miller would turn up in unusual places, he said, as if he was marking off a bucket list.
“He loved life. He loved to have fun,” Rotsaert said. “But when it was time for business, he got down to business.”
© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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