While his Episcopal High School classmates planned to become doctors, lawyers and business executives, Zachary Miller also wanted to be a leader — one with a different uniform.
Today, Miller commands a multinational battalion in Afghanistan.
The 40-year-old Army lieutenant colonel leads Task Force Solid, which protects 180 square miles of a long-troubled nation. The primary mission is protecting Bagram Airfield. He also consults with Afghan military, police and political leaders in Parwan Province to prepare Afghan forces for when foreign forces leave.
“I am encouraged by the growth in the rule of law and in the development of the army,” Miller said. “They are far from where they need to be, but continue to improve. Nothing I or my successors do are going to transform this area overnight. All we can do is work to make things a little better today than they were yesterday.”
His 1,700 soldiers are mostly foreign. More are from the Republic of Georgia than any other country, but the task force includes a company from the Czech Republic and guards from Nepal, as well as Marines and Air Force personnel.
Little about Miller’s background suggested this career. Only two relatives he knows served in uniform, and just one other Episcopal graduate went to one of the nation’s service academies when Miller attended. Miller is one of only a dozen EHS grads ever to attend a service academy.
But a visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point made Miller think about it.
“Coach (Claney) Duplechin minced no words when we discussed it and said there should be no question in my mind — I would do well, and you can’t say yes once you say no,” Miller said. “So the journey I’m on now really started with the people who were closest to me giving me a little push.”
Graduating from West Point in 1997, Miller planned to fulfill his five-year Army obligation and enter civilian life. The quality of people he met there convinced him to stay. At his first posting with a construction battalion, he met his wife, Beth, at a wedding. They married in May 2001, only months before the terrorists attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
“I guess you could say that I knew what I was getting myself into marrying someone in the Army, but prior to 9/11, I’m not really sure any of us knew what was in store,” she said.
What was to come were combat deployments, including Iraq.
Miller commanded a combat engineer company with the 1st Cavalry Division in 2004. His company supported infantry that battled the Mahdi Army in Baghdad’s Sadr City, detecting and clearing roadside bombs.
“There were extended periods of time when we were engaged by the enemy every time we left our base,” Miller said. “As the fighting waxed and waned, we also completed infrastructure projects for the water, sewer and electrical systems there. But throughout the year, there were numerous unpredictable surges in violence that caused us to quickly shift focus from that type of work back to fighting.”
Miller and 13 others in the company were wounded, none fatally.
But death was not in short supply for soldiers experiencing their first combat.
“When things got tough during that deployment, I learned about the incredible strength and commitment of the young men and women that volunteered to be in our Army,” Miller said. “It is really tough to get back in your truck and drive down the same road that somebody was killed on the day prior, or to try and work with locals when you’re not sure if you can trust them. But these things can be done. Really, they must be done.”
Following Iraq, Miller attended graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, served at the Pentagon and became a paratrooper, joining the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the family now resides.
In Miller’s current role, he’s involved with Afghan governmental, military and tribal leaders to assess what’s going on and what needs to change. His soldiers still face hostile forces.
On the political side, Bagram Airfield has been a boon to Parwan Province. As foreigners leave, it hurts the local economy. Afghans are torn between wanting the foreigners to leave and wanting them to stay.
“The leaders I deal with are all survivors,” Miller said. “Some I imagine are completely altruistic and only want a better Afghanistan. Some are in it for personal gain in wealth and power. Most are a mix of the two. I operate by a strict set of legal, moral and ethical standards, so I tend to be fairly straightforward with those I deal with, but the reverse is not always true.”
So, it’s complicated.
So is trying to balance his duties with having a family on the other side of the world.
Miller gets daily emails from Beth, often with photos of Nate, 9, and Evie, 6. They speak by phone weekly, occasionally getting to see him when he gets two weeks of R&R.
“I think the older the kids get, the more difficult it is for everyone,” Beth Miller said. “It’s harder for Zach to be absent from their activities. It’s harder for me because I’m only one person … It’s hard because when I’m beyond done in the evenings, the kids don’t have the joy of ‘fun dad’ to come home, wrestle with them and tuck them in bed.”
They won’t have him for any extended period before his deployment ends in October.
“I embrace the fact that choosing the Army means danger, long separations, grinding fatigue and stress, because it also means respect for our nation’s history and traditions and a commitment to the highest standards of individual and collective excellence,” he said. “And it allows me to say that the only job contract I’ve ever signed is between me and my country.
“Everybody has to pursue a life that fulfills them, and there are countless options to suit different desires and abilities. I am fortunate that I found the Army, that I was embraced by the leaders I came into contact with, and that I’ve had some incredible opportunities for professional and personal growth.”