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S0Noma
11-25-2007, 01:41 PM
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/img/11-04/1112marine.jpg <font color="blue">By Katya Cengel
kcengel@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal

JONANCY, Ky When she sees him, Lisa Burke calls out to ask how he is doing.

He tells her he's taking it day by day.

She says she knows by looking at her nephew's famous face now hidden under a scraggly beard, large hat and sunglasses if he isn't doing well, if he needs to escape the haunting memories from the war in Iraq.

"The old Blake ..." she starts to say, then stops.

The James Blake Miller she remembers as happy-go-lucky would probably have enjoyed being the "Marlboro Marine," the face made famous in a photograph taken after the Battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

"The new Blake," the one who returned to Kentucky from Iraq, didn't even tell his family that a story by the photographer who took that picture was running this past Veterans Day in the Los Angeles Times.

They found out about it days later.

In early November he left, not returning to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky for more than a week. Between November and January, says his father, Jimmy Miller, "You won't see him; might be three days, might be three weeks."

From what Miller can piece together, it was during those months that his oldest son lost several comrades in battle. Luis Sinco, the photographer who took the famous shot of Blake, was with Blake during the battle of Fallujah. In his story, Sinco describes entering the insurgent stronghold under heavy fire, spending an endless night pinned down in a traffic circle with only a curb for protection and running for cover, bullets ricocheting at his feet.

It is Sinco who talks to Miller about the war. But even Sinco can't tell him where his son goes during this time. What Miller knows is he must feed Blake's dog, Mudbone, tethered near a trailer in the yard behind his house.

"He's got his stuff there," Miller says of the trailer, but "I can't really say he lives there."

In the almost three years since he's come home from the war, Blake has become a "rambling man," says one of his two younger brothers, Todd Miller, 21.

"He gets on his Harley and goes."

Blake has a cell phone, and his dad scrawls out the number on a scrap of paper. Maybe he'll answer, says Jimmy Miller, maybe he won't.

Blake does answer, but in a distant voice says he doesn't want to comment.

The only person who seems to be able to reach him is Sinco, the man who made Blake "the face of war."

In his Veterans Day article, Sinco describes the bond that formed in 2004 after his photo of Blake made them both famous a bond that led him to help Blake seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, only to watch him walk away. A bond that still exists, says Sinco in a telephone interview, but one that can only do so much.

"I cannot help him further with his psychological problem," he says.

The waking nightmare

In the photo, the eyes are slits, peering from beneath a mask of smeared war paint, sweat and blood, seemingly fixed on an object far away.

When his father first saw it, he says he saw a man of 30, not his then-20-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller. It was taken on a rooftop in Fallujah after a long night of dodging sniper fire. Blake said earlier it was the most frightening day of the eight months he spent in Iraq.

The sniper was dead. Blake was alive. A freshly lit cigarette dangled from his lips. Smoke curled over his left shoulder

Sinco captured that moment.

In his Veterans Day article, Sinco writes about his memories of the light streaming in, his relief at being alive. Blake, he writes, remembers the darkness of death and killing the enemy. And that is the big difference between them, says Sinco, in the recent interview: "I never had to kill anybody."

Sinco spent about a month embedded with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Blake was the platoon's radioman. Sinco was friendly with the Marines, but they weren't his friends, he says he hadn't suffered through boot camp with them, hadn't fought alongside them, hadn't helped them write their last letters home. He had seen their nightmare, but he hadn't shared it.

Back home, Sinco says, he tossed and turned in bed and occasionally awoke not knowing where he was.

Blake, says his father, has spells where he doesn't know where he is. In his story, Sinco wrote that Blake told him he had once blacked out while cleaning a shotgun, and when he came to, he found himself pointing the gun at his wife, Jessica.

Blake was medically discharged from the Marines in 2005 after attacking a sailor, wrote Sinco. His diagnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, made headlines. Sinco was sent to Eastern Kentucky to cover it.

He watched Blake renew his marriage vows in a lavish ceremony paid for by fans from around the nation, watched him address Washington politicians while hung over, and watched him call a lawyer about getting a divorce.

Sinco says he told Blake that he hadn't intended to make him famous; and Blake told him what he wasn't telling anyone else, what he couldn't forget about the war, what he couldn't say to his comrades because he was no longer a Marine. He told him about the memories.

"I think it was really the first time he was able to talk to somebody who was there and had a perspective on it like, 'Wasn't that crazy? ...'" says Sinco.

Later, the photographer drove Blake to a veterans' treatment program in West Haven, Conn. The program was supposed to last six months to a year. Blake left after two months. Sinco wrote how he followed him back to his crumbling marriage, his $2,500-a-month disability check, his drinking and his depression.

"He's where he was three years ago when he got out of the Marines," says Sinco.

"Life is kind of rudderless; he drifts in and out of stuff."

Waiting for his return

While few return from war unscathed, says Ernie Baringer, a therapist with a veterans' center in Princeton, W.Va., veterans must seek treatment on their own. Thirty percent of troops returning from Iraq have developed stress-related mental-health problems, and a smaller number suffer from PTSD, according to Army research.

Without treatment, says Baringer: "They can continue to exist, but is it the lifestyle they want, or the only one they know?"

The veterans can push the memories away, he says, but certain triggers may bring them back, something he saw first with Korea and World War II veterans during Vietnam and now with veterans during Iraq.

At the treatment center in Connecticut, Sinco says he noticed that most of the patients were veterans of an earlier war who had "basically lived 40 years of drinking, doing drugs, marital and family problems and alienation" before deciding to straighten out their lives.

While Blake seems to be keeping it together, says Sinco, "I think it's almost kind of like a ticking time bomb; it might go off soon, it might go off down the road. I think it's better to defuse it."

But Sinco says as far as he can tell, Blake hasn't seen a therapist near his home in almost a year.

Jessica Miller, who is separated from Blake, did not want to talk, her grandmother says.

Sinco says he wasn't surprised by their breakup.

"I think she was hoping for the young, athletic, handsome boy that she knew when he left and he wasn't."

The outgoing youth Blake used to be, the boy who loved to socialize and play sports, has become an agitated man with aching joints and a conversational maximum of about five minutes, his family says; a man who carries a loaded gun, won't sit with his back to doors and is frightened by sudden noises; a man who "packs up and goes," leaving behind his family and the life he might have led in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where his brother, father and two uncles all work at the same place.

Soon, Blake's youngest brother, Michael, may join the others as a mechanic, but Todd, the father of twin 14-month old girls, doesn't see Blake joining them.

"I think he'll be just like this the rest of his life."

Reporter Katya Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224.
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wolfdancer
11-25-2007, 05:43 PM
Good post, good story...thanks!!!