'Am I Next?'

Army Specialist John Wayne Miller
Spec. John Wayne Miller was killed by sniper fire in Ramadi, Iraq, on April 12. (Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 20, 2005

R Under the glare of a midmorning sun, Staff Sgt. Jody Hayes stands sweating in the hatch of his M-113 armored vehicle, scanning for insurgents. Hayes and his Iowa National Guard crew have been stalled for nearly 30 minutes on a risky, slow-moving mission to clear road bombs, and he's getting nervous.

Suddenly he hears the snap of a sniper's bullet flying past his head. The round pierces the neck of the soldier next to him, Spec. John Miller, entering the two-inch gap between his Kevlar vest collar and helmet.

"Get down!" Hayes yells. Miller falls heavily against Hayes's leg, and at first Hayes believes his friend is taking cover. "Man, he got down pretty quick," he recalls thinking. Then he glances down and sees Miller bleeding at his feet.

Sgt. Ty Dermer, who is manning a .50-caliber machine gun within arm's reach of Miller, radios for help: "We got a man down! We need a medic, ASAP!"

Hayes drops down and cradles Miller's head in his lap, while Dermer rips open a pressure dressing and places it on the neck wound. Each man grabs one of Miller's hands and feels for a pulse. They still haven't found one when medic Spec. Jaymie Holschlag pulls open the back door of the M-113 and rushes, breathless, to Miller's side.

"Doc," Hayes says, looking up at her. "He's gone."

Holschlag begins checking Miller's pulse herself, as if she hasn't heard.

"Doc," Hayes repeats, louder. "He's gone!"

It is 10:18 a.m. on April 12, and John Wayne Miller is no more.

In the frenzy to save Miller, no one was thinking about why the war had snatched away the gangly 21-year-old Wal-Mart stocker from West Burlington, Iowa. Only later, as darkness falls and details of the day's horrors ricochet through their camp, do that question and others begin to haunt Hayes and his tightknit Iowa platoon. With a fifth of its soldiers killed or wounded, the platoon is reeling from the trauma of repeated loss, facing a constant threat from bombs and gunfire on Ramadi's streets, or mortar strikes on their base. They are angry, anxious, wracked by guilt -- one soldier suffers from combat stress so acute that he is unable to go on missions, and stays behind camp walls.

Dermer asks bitterly why the crew had sat exposed so long, making them an easy target.

Hayes turns inward, tormented over why the sniper had set his cross hairs on Miller instead of him.


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