As insurgent bullets flew overhead, Sgt. Luke Miller held his paralyzed friend’s hand and prayed with him in the sweltering belly of a bombed-out tank in Iraq.
The day was May 8, and three Idaho Marines were gravely injured by a roadside bomb. Miller, a 25-year-old Marine reservist, charged through gunfire to aid his injured comrades and carry one to a waiting helicopter. That act of heroism has earned the math teacher from Boise’s West Junior High School a prestigious national honor.
At a Washington, D.C., ceremony today, Miller will receive the Military Vanguard Award, bestowed annually upon one member of each branch of the military.
“I’m extremely honored,” said Miller, who is sharing his story publicly for the first time with Idaho Statesman readers.
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Miller’s saga began in the early-morning darkness of May 8, when his tank joined a convoy that included another 4th Battalion tank with four Idaho Marines. That tank was commanded by Staff Sgt. Chad Brumpton of Boise and driven by Lance Cpl. Fernando Lazalde of Driggs. Lance Cpl. Joe Lowe of Boise was the gunner; Lance Cpl. Mitch Ehlke of Star loaded the gun and worked the radios.
The convoy headed into the town of Karbala, participating in an intense insurgent sweep called Operation Matador. The Marines were told to take up a position by a bridge because the crew originally assigned to that detail was stuck in the desert.
As soon as they entered town, the tankers were met by small arms and mortar fire. They made it through to their position on the Euphrates River unscathed, but continued to take sporadic fire from the city and from across the river. Then good news: A new crew was coming. The tanks began backing up to leave.
That's when Miller heard a massive boom. A bomb had gone off under Brumpton's tank.
Other tanks had hit bombs and come away with minor damage, such as broken tracks. Miller hoped that Brumpton's tank had sustained only light damage.
"When I tried to contact them on the radio, there was no response," Miller recounted, "and our hearts kind of sank."
He saw Lazalde at the open hatch, waving. He couldn't tell if Lazalde was asking for help or saying he was OK. Then he knew: He saw a bloodied Mitch Ehlke struggle to the top of the tank before slumping over near the hatch.
Inside the shrapnel-littered tank, injured Marines were in desperate need of help. Their radio was destroyed. "Blood and smoke" is how Ehlke described the scene.
Miller decided to leave his tank to help Brumpton's crew. As he neared the tank, he saw crew members from a nearby helicopter helping Ehlke to the chopper. Miller looked into the destroyed tank and saw Brumpton bleeding profusely. He was barely conscious and unable to move his legs, his spine severed by shrapnel.
"It was obvious from the very first point of looking down it was just a horrible picture," Miller said.
Lazalde was not injured. He and Miller helped Brumpton to the top of the tank. They handed him off to the chopper crew as a hail of bullets started tinking off the tank. Lazalde and Miller dove into the hatch.
On the floor of the tank, baking in the desert heat, was Lowe, who had suffered injuries that would leave him paralyzed below the waist.
As the firefight intensified, the helicopter lifted away. Bullets ripped through its vulnerable outershell. Miller, unsure if more help was coming, tried to comfort Lowe.
"We prayed together and talked," Miller said.
Fifty yards away, Miller's tank crew was laying down protective fire, keeping the insurgents at bay. Miller said he is proud that his tank crew had the discipline to stay put: "They were all doing exactly what they should have been doing."
Then a second chopper arrived. Recalled Miller: "We just kind of said, 'This is the time.' "
Miller climbed to the top of the tank. Lowe, despite intense pain, reached up so Miller could grab him and pull him up. With insurgent bullets still flying, Miller slung Lowe over his shoulder and ran to the waiting helicopter. He dropped off Lowe, then he and Lazalde headed back to his tank to rejoin the fight.
It was a miracle that no one was shot, Miller said.
"We had angels protecting us or something," he said.
Until now, Miller, who also is nominated for a Bronze Star, has been quiet about his actions, sharing his story only with his closest Marine friends. In a recent Statesman interview, he choked up recalling that day, swallowing hard to regain his composure.
Miller returned from Iraq on Oct. 14 with the rest of the 4th Tank Battalion, one of more than 80 Idaho Marine reservists who spent seven months in Iraq. Miller had an emotional reunion at the Boise Airport with the three Marines he helped save. The junior high teacher echoed Shakespeare to express his feelings.
"I feel a bond with Brumpton, Lowe and Ehlke just because I think, 'whoever sheds blood with me will be my brother' — there's a lot of truth in that, and I can't express the bond I share with those guys and all of the guys I served with over there," he said.
Lowe, who is recuperating at home, was too ill to comment for this story. But Ehlke, who had his leg amputated below the knee after the attack, said Miller was "calm, cool and collected" on May 8.
"He definitely deserves (the award)," Ehlke said. "I can't think of anyone else that deserves it more than this guy."
Brumpton, who is still recovering from multiple fractures suffered in the bombing, called Miller and Lazalde "heroes" in an e-mail to the Statesman.
"Without the actions of Sgt. Miller and Lance Cpl. Lazalde, I might not be here to tell my story," he wrote. "I will never be able to thank them enough."
Miller is quick to deflect the praise, giving credit to Lazalde and the helicopter crews that helped rescue the Marines.
"I think the guys that were injured deserve all the recognition," he said. "What I did was easy. They've had a very long road."
Miller said he looks forward to returning to "his" kids at West Junior High and said he's "nothing but excited" about teaching again.
Miller's reserve commitment is up in January, but Marine 1st Sgt. Bill Heyob is twisting his arm to stay.
"With the experiences he's had, he would be a valuable asset to keep around here to train young Marines," said Heyob, an inspector and instructor for the Boise-based Charlie Company 4th Tank Battalion with which Miller serves. "He's experienced it — what can go wrong and how to overcome it."
Leadership comes naturally to Miller, said Heyob, who nominated Miller for the Vanguard Award.
"It's a huge deal," Heyob said. "There's only one (Marine recipient), and he's it."
To comment, contact reporter Heath Druzin at hdruzin@ idahostatesman.com or 373-6617.