Since returning from war in October, Luke Miller has been most surprised by feelings of nostalgia. After spending his days in the Iraqi desert looking forward to getting home, the Boise teacher catches himself missing the daily adrenaline rush of his yearlong tour.
"In February, I kind of went through a phase where it never left my mind the things I was missing," he said.
It's not that the former Marine reservist wants to go back. He has a loving wife and family in Boise and adoring students at West Junior High, where he teaches math.
"That's the stuff I thought about every day when I was over in Iraq," he said. "It's just a blessing to get up every day and be here for the beautiful spring."
Miller, 25, saw intense fighting during his tour, participating in an insurgent sweep along the Syrian border last May in which three Idaho Marines were injured when a bomb tore through their tank. Miller ran to the smoking wreckage under fire and helped save the injured mens' lives. He earned the Bronze Star and the Military Vanguard Award, awarded annually to one member of each branch of the U.S. military.
Injured in the attack were Lance Cpl. Joe Lowe, of Eagle, who was paralyzed from the chest down; Lance Cpl. Mitch Ehlke, of Star, who had his right leg amputated below the knee; and Staff Sgt. Chad Brumpton, of Boise, who suffered multiple broken bones.
All have since returned to the Treasure Valley and are putting their lives back together.
Miller's wife, Katie, wasn't able to talk to her husband for 15 days after the bombing. His return to Boise in October meant being free from the nightly newscasts and the daily worries. She said it's surreal to think he was gone for a year. Having him back has made her realize how important their bond is.
"It's been really easy to adjust back to regular life, and I'm just glad we don't have to deal with that anymore," she said.
Katie Miller said her husband rarely talks about the grittier aspects of his tour, to which only his fellow Marines can relate.
"There's a bond they've formed with each other that's separate from you that you can never be a part of," she said.
Miller still keeps in touch with his tank crew and the Marines he helped save. On Thursday he, Ehlke, Lowe and Brumpton met for dinner. Miller said he became tight with his fellow Marines living at close quarters under difficult and dangerous conditions.
"We all have that bond and care about each other like family," he said.
Despite Miller's reluctance to talk about his combat experience, working every day with junior high students means blunt questions, including, often, "Did you kill anybody?"
Miller said he answers honestly — yes, he saw heavy combat and killed insurgents — before explaining that it's not a great question to ask a veteran.
"I use that as a teachable moment," he said.
Miller smiles easily and often through the inevitable interruptions of seventh-grade class, pointing with hands stained green by erasable marker to recognize his students. West Principal Rich Webb said Miller is a positive influence as a mentor and teacher, and having a veteran at the school gives students a close-up view of the Iraq War.
"It does give us and the students perspective on the whole process, brings that whole situation to light," Webb said.
For a while, Miller was in the spotlight, receiving his Bronze Star at a ceremony during halftime of a Boise State University football game and the Vanguard award at a Washington, D.C., ceremony. He was guest of honor at a patriotic concert put on by West students. Now that the attention has died down, Miller said, he is happy to just be a teacher again.
"It is a lot of work ... and it comes with frustrations like any other job," he said. "But the rewards are great, getting to connect with students and feel like you can make a difference in their life."