Medal of Honor recipient Robert Miller remembered by his teammate

Jack Murphy
May 11, 2020 - 10:36 am
SSG Robert Miller

Courtesy of Javier Mackey

The Special Forces soldiers knew they were rolling into harm's way. It was their second time targeting this particular high-value target amid the sheer cliffs of Kunar province in Afghanistan. The geography of the region was so unforgiving that coalition forces were often severely restricted in how they could move about the battlespace. This particular choke point was known by the Green Berets of ODA 3312 as ambush alley.

"One way in, one way out," former Special Forces soldier Javier Mackey said, recalling his team's movement on Jan. 25, 2008, adding about the enemy that, "they take advantage of that." In a recent interview, Mackey openly described the mission for the first time publicly.

As an 18 charlie (Special Forces Engineer) Mackey had to get out of his vehicle several times to clear boulders on the road that were blocking the path of the convoy, which he did with C4 explosives. Coming out of a series of switchbacks, the enemy compound was in sight and the Americans and their partner force set up a hasty ambush before opening fire. Mackey picked up an 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle and began firing at enemy positions on the other side of the river that flowed through the bottom of the valley to their right.

Firing an MK19 grenade launcher mounted on one of the vehicles was Staff Sgt. Robert Miller. He was on his second deployment with the team and had proven to be a highly competent Green Beret, able to build rapport with locals, manage team's various weapons systems, and quickly pick up and learn new languages in the field such as Dari and Pashto.

Meanwhile, the Air Force Combat Controller (CCT) attached to the Special Forces team began calling in airstrikes. Once the smoke cleared, the men were ordered across the river to conduct a battle damage assessment. Miller was able to use his knowledge of the local language to direct the Afghan soldiers as they swept forward towards the enemy positions that had been engaged. The rest of the team filed behind.

Suddenly, Miller and his element took contact from an ambush that the enemy had established in a nearby woodline. "We received a ton of fire," Mackey said. "We broke apart, left and right. So that means Robbie [Miller] is to the right and I'm to the left. We were spread out by about twenty meters," he said. One enemy manning a PKM machine gun from behind a wall yelled, "Allah Akbar!"

The Afghan soldiers teamed up with the Americans bailed, according to Mackey, which left Robbie exposed as he was engaging the enemy with his M249 SAW machine gun. Mackey and a teammate were also engaging four enemies who kept shooting at them. "We were playing whack-a-mole," Mackey said. He prepared to throw a grenade, but his teammate informed him that they were too close and could be injured themselves by the blast.

It was a tough firefight, Mackey recalled. Their team leader, the captain was hit by enemy gunfire during this time. Mackey was also hit by enemy fire, the bullet lodging itself in the magazines full of bullets that he had in a pouch on his chest. Hit but uninjured, Mackey continued to fire upon the enemy while Miller called for them to break contact and tactically withdrawal. 

"And then I can hear his SAW sing its last note," Mackey remembered. After that, he didn't hear Miller anymore. "I immediately ran to my buddy and I began rendering first aid," Mackey said.

He began making sweeps of Miller's head and body as all Special Forces soldiers are trained to do during medical training. Mackey was looking for bullet wounds but could not find any initially. Miller's breaths became shallow. In the darkness, Mackey found a bullet wound under Miller's armpit and tried to treat him for a sucking chest wound but by now Staff Sgt. Miller had expired. In the meantime, Mackey had himself been shot a second time, the bullet striking his radio.

The CCT began calling in strafing runs from friendly aircraft overhead to beat the enemy back. They began carrying Miller's remains back to the convoy but because of the difficult terrain and the sustained amount of enemy gunfire, Mackey had to make a decision that while tactically correct was still heartbreaking. "We gotta leave him," Mackey said. "At this point, we were taking fire, a lot of fire."

"I felt a lot of guilt, you know, leaving my buddy," Mackey said. "That tears me up to this day." 

They left Miller while more airstrikes were called in and the Americans reconsolidated and planned to recover their teammate. It was now daylight, and Miller was visible from the road just a hundred meters or so away. Mackey, desperate to recover his friend and stressed from combat, nearly ran out to get him by himself, a dangerous and irrational moment that was prevented from going further by a teammate who intervened. Once the enemy was pacified, the team recovered Miller's remains. 

"I went out to the Medevac bird to pick up Robbie when he came back in," Mackey said. After, he and his teammates fueled up vehicles and prepared to go on another mission if called to do so. "It was rough," Mackey recalled. The team said their last goodbyes to their teammate and carried him out to a helicopter. 

"Leaving Robbie behind was the hardest decision that I could make as an NCO, as a leader," Mackey said. "I don't regret leaving him behind, I just don't like the fact that I did."

For his bravery under fire that night, Staff Sgt. Robert Miller was awarded the Medal of Honor. At the ceremony, President Barack Obama said, "in valleys and villages half a world away, they remember him — the American who spoke their language, who respected their culture and who helped them defend their country." In regard to Mackey and the other members of ODA 3312, he said, "Rob Miller endures in the service of his teammates — his brothers in arms who served with him, bled with him and fought to bring him home.  These soldiers embody the spirit that guides our troops in Afghanistan every day — the courage, the resolve, the relentless focus on their mission."

"That event would go on to haunt me for years," Mackey said. The fallout had a profound effect on his relationships and personal life, but his recovery began by going to see a counselor at Veteran's Affairs. Today, Mackey has worked to reconcile his experiences in combat and today focuses on his family, his faith, and helping others.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.