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FORWARD OPERATING BASE MAREZ – Sgt. Keith Miller looks every bit the soldier.

Miller, 35, carries a squared-off 250 pounds on his 5’11” frame, has a shaved head (“Like Bruce Willis says, it is the comb-over of the 1990s”) and he favors the wrap-around mirror shades common among American troops. He’s not especially quick to smile. It all can make for an imposing presence.

Miller is the driver for Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Smith of the 113th Combat Engineering Battalion. This is the second active duty tour of Miller’s 14 years in the Guard. He got an extra day of Thanksgiving leave in 2002 to marry Niki, town clerk of Claypool. He was then part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Miller had just begun working as a grinding tool operator at Midwest Spring, Mentone, when he learned the 113th was being called up. He volunteered. “They were great about it,” he says of his employers, “They were real supportive, real supportive.”

Driving for the Command Sergeant, an old-style noncommissioned officer who can keep you laughing, “is good duty,” Miller says, but he would have liked to be closer to the action. He works mostly a day shift, although it isn’t uncommon to be called out at any time, for a long time. He’s sort of an administrative aide for Command Sgt. Maj. Smith. Smith is the battalion’s top enlisted man. Along with Lt. Col. Richard Shatto, Smith’s is the only name on the big sign near the 113th’s headquarters. Miller helps in the office some, maintains the Humvee, makes sure the gear is ready and drives. His work day usually begins at 6 or 7 a.m. “It’s all mission-dictated,” he says.

The 113th arrived in Mosul in January, about two weeks before Iraq’s historic election. Among other things, they prepared polling places. That meant placing more than 2,000 concrete barriers in a hurry. Put them up too early, and the terrorists would have time to take them out.

“We weren’t here long before we were into mode,” Miller said. “That was the biggest hump. I wouldn’t have placed money on it (the vote) happening at that time. The insurgents lost a lot of face because the whole country voted.”

Not long ago he went home for the funeral of one of Niki’s aunts. “People everywhere were thanking me,” he remembers. “Hell, any fool can get shot at. She’s the one who holds it all together.” Their blended family includes Todd, 16, Andrew, 13, Cassie, 13, Cody, 16, and Zach, 12.

Miller has been gratified by the attitude expressed by the American public, particularly a round of spontaneous applause he received in the Atlanta airport. “I’m coming home for leave and I’m going up this escalator and people start clapping. I’m looking around to see what they are clapping for. It's unbelievable.”

He doesn’t think most Americans “understand what we are doing here” and blames the media. Running tallies of American war dead bothers him. “These people, they want us here,” says the sergeant. “It's like living in a neighborhood with a gang. You want the police here, but they can't be here all the time.”

He figures the training is key. “Once these (Iraqi) people step in and start taking over these missions, then we’re good.”

Keith Miller likes being a soldier and he likes being part of history. “I just think it’s more than a job,” he said. “Even my wife will tell you, when I call home I sound happy.”

Editor’s note: W.S. Wilson is embedded near Mosul, Iraq, with the Indiana National Guard’s 113th Combat Engineering Battalion, based out of northern Indiana. Most of the 113th’s soldiers are from northern Indiana. To contact Wilson: wsw@rochsent.com.

Published May 25, 2005