Marylisa Miller has spent much of her two decades as an Army wife bracing for the worst. But now the pressure is higher, as both her husband and their 20-year-old son are serving together in Afghanistan.
It’s rare, but not unheard of: Sgt. 1st Class Martin Miller and his son Pfc. Martin Miller have deployed as part of the same squadron of about 500 soldiers. Their brigade — based at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg — is among the first specifically assigned to train Afghan security and military forces. “If the phone rings in the middle of the night, I answer it no matter what,” said Mary Lisa Miller. “You never know. It could be the last call.” The Miller men — both paratroopers — didn’t really plan to march shoulder-to-shoulder into harm’s way. It just sort of happened that way. “I pretty much have always wanted to be in the Army,” said Pfc. Miller, who remembers watching his dad leap out of military aircraft with other soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division. “I guess watching him do it — it looked cool,” he said. Shortly before they deployed in August, the Millers revisited family memories at Fort Bragg’s Wilson Park — the same spot where the couple picnicked with their toddler son and daughter years ago. Telling family stories, the Millers laughed about old snapshots showing the future private first class as a boy — standing at parade rest while his father spoke to him. “When I scolded him and his sister, I taught them to stand at parade rest,” Sgt. Miller explained. “Then their punishment would be laps, flutter kicks, push-ups and sit-ups. It taught discipline and put them in good shape.” After high school, dad convinced his son to try a year of college first. Soldiers with college degrees go further in the service, Sgt. Miller said. But a year later it was clear the young man’s interests were in the Army. After all, growing up with a warrior father tends to influence a boy. Sgt. Miller did what he could to have his son stationed at Fort Bragg. He ended up in the same squadron.
In Depth: War in Afghanistan
The father and son describe themselves as close. “Yeah, we’re always doing something together,” Pfc. Miller said. “We go out and party together and we fish and ride motorcycles.” Walking together wearing red Airborne berets marked with their distinctive squadron flashes, the Millers talked about what it means to be a military family and how this life of service often extends to civilian spouses and children. “Back when I was a kid, there were a lot of people who saw the Army as something good,” said Sgt. Miller, 46, who enlisted a year out of high school. “Everybody should do a little bit for their country.” Although the Millers serve in the same squadron, they are in different troops — and therefore don’t share the same chain of command. “He can’t work directly for me,” Sgt Miller said. “Family members are not supposed to work directly for other family members. But my platoon possibly would work with his.” Unlike his previous tours of duty, Sgt. Miller now bears two heavy burdens: command and fatherhood. The possibility that his son could lose his life while serving in the same squadron has crossed his mind. “If something happens to him, I can still function, but it won’t be pretty,” the sergeant said. “But knowing others depend on me, I can’t get all broken up about it. If something were going to happen to him, I’d probably break when I got back.” ‘Navy brat’ Marylisa Miller has known the military since birth. She is the seventh of eight “Navy brats” born to a father who chose a sailor’s life and moved his family from assignment to assignment. In the early ’80s she met the man who would be her warrior husband. Shyly, she said they met in a bar. “It wasn’t a bar,” her husband said, smiling. “They say she’s kind of like me: kind of hard-headed, a little bit stubborn and not afraid to voice my opinion.” Marylisa laughed about their first meeting: “I was trying to get him interested in my sister.” Instead, she and Martin “just clicked.” They married six months later. Sgt. Miller has served in Cold War Europe, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. He said being away from his wife doesn’t get any easier. “After you hit the 12-month mark, and then it turns into 15, it feels like forever after that,” he said. The Millers have chosen a life in which Marylisa may not hear her husband’s voice for three or four months at a time. Over the years, she said, she has learned to rely on herself. “He would come home from deployments and say, ‘Let me help you,’ and I’d say ‘No, because when you’re not here, who’s going to do it for me’ ” “I have to learn how to be independent, so I try to tell everybody else to learn how to do it yourself,” Marylisa said. “You can’t always rely on them.” ‘I don’t want to think about if the phone’s gonna ring’ She stays busy. At Fort Bragg, Marylisa is the co-leader of a Family Readiness Group, the Army’s support group aimed at helping spouses, children and others make the best of difficult military deployments. “I always like to be involved in everything,” she said, laughing. “That way you get to hear the information firsthand.” The network of Army families provides a conduit of information on deployments and upcoming events. FRGs offer Marylisa a way to help other families. “We have a lot of new families in the troop,” she said. “Some of them are young and we try to guide them in the right direction. When someone gets hurt, we’re all right there to jump in. It’s like an extended family.” She recalled an FRG request to help a young Army wife with a newborn baby. “I jumped in and baby-sat her child,” she said. “She didn’t know me from the man in the moon.” Volunteering keeps her away from TV news and its reminders that terrible events could be moments away. “I don’t want to think about if the phone’s going to ring or if there’s going to be that knock on the door.” ‘I should have been dead’ The Millers’ 4th Brigade Combat Team will be the first such unit designated for “security force assistance” in Afghanistan, said an Army spokeswoman. The brigade will train Afghan forces to battle Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. In the past, this kind of mission was given to small teams of advisers who were trained in the United States and then deployed in the region. This is the first time an entire brigade has been given this mission, according to the Army. The sergeant has embraced the view that there’s nothing much a soldier can do except depend on his or her training to stay safe. “I’ve had mortars come within 20 meters of me and not get a scratch out of it. I should have been dead,” Sgt. Miller said. “You see something happen like that and you know it’s not your time until it’s your time.” His son, not long out of jump school — he has just seven jumps to his credit — said he’s not worried about himself or his father. “He ain’t gonna die. He’s too old for it now,” Pfc. Miller joked. “He has deployed too many times. He knows the secrets.”