Vietnam veteran comes full circle to help other vets

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Gilbert E. Miller Jr. loves his job with the Veterans Administration and he credits his service in ‘Nam for bringing him “full circle “to serve other veterans.

Miller was born in Pennsylvania and lived for a time in North Carolina. His family moved to Baltimore when he was 6 years old. He was an only child and both of his parents worked. His father was an educator and his mother a Registered Nurse. He said they had high hopes for him but didn’t know what to do with his rebellious nature.

“I went to school in Catonsville but I had some behavioral problems,” Miller said, adding that his father moved him from Baltimore County to the Howard County school system to no avail.

“It didn’t work out. I was mostly insubordinate. I quit school in the 11th grade in 1963,” he said.

He reentered school after coaxing from his parents but quit again and found a job at a local gas station.

“The second night [on the job] the boss took me into his office and showed me a .38 [handgun] and told me don’t hesitate to use it,” he said. Miller was in the Navy recruiting office the next day.

Local veteran Gilbert Miller, who now spends his time helping other veterans, shares his "Memories of 'Nam" with the APG News.
Local veteran Gilbert Miller, who now spends his time helping other veterans, shares his “Memories of ‘Nam” with the APG News.

“I was 17. I tested and passed but I needed my parents’ signature,” he said, adding that his parents were in favor of his decision.

“Even in the 60s a high school education wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “There was enough work you could get without it. Families didn’t send a lot of kids to college. At the time, the draft wasn’t a big deal either and I had a number of friends who had gone into the service rather than completing school. There was always news on TV about some kind of conflict but Vietnam wasn’t on everyone’s mind at the time. My dad was pretty excited that I was going in because he thought the discipline would do me good.”

Miller went to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, north of Chicago. He said that at graduation time recruits could choose their vocation from 20 specialties.

“I looked at what I thought would be interesting and chose Aviation Electronics Technician,” he said.

He went to school in Memphis, Tennessee and took the opportunity to earn his GED. After a 32-week training program, he said he surprised himself.

“I was always bad at math. I thought about all the problems I had in high school and I was amazed I was able to go through something so intense successfully,” he said.

After school he received orders for Guam in 1946 to serve at what was originally a weather squadron with fixed wing EC-121s. The Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star was an early warning and control radar surveillance aircraft used by the Navy and the Air Force. Miller had a stop in Hawaii for radar theory training before heading to Guam. Military life seemed surreal, he said.

“Hawaii was a wonderful experience. I had never been any place tropical. It was a paradise. I saw Waikiki and went scuba diving. It was a pretty amazing time for an 18-year-old away from home for the first time.”

Guam and the Gulf of Tonkin

In Guam, Miller served as a radar operator with VW-1 tasked with flying missions in the Gulf of Tonkin bordering North and South Vietnam. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which took place in August 1964 between American and North Vietnamese forces, is considered the spark that ignited American involvement in the war in Vietnam.

“Every two weeks we would deploy from Guam to the Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines where we would fly 16 hour missions over the gulf every other day,” he said. “We would fly over the fleet to detect any moving targets. If we identified anything unusual enough a commissioned officer would take radar control of an aircraft from the carrier and vector the jet to the target. There were always surveillance planes in the air, 24 hours a day protecting the fleet. Sometimes the Vietnamese would approach the fleet in gunboats. Every once in a while we’d fly into Da Nang to refuel.”

He said he and his crewmates had no fear because they were 10,000 feet in the air.

“The Navy, in that particular situation, we were a powerful military force – we ruled the sea,” he said. “The ground game was a different matter.”

“I’m not so sure any of us thought about safety,” he added. “You got into a routine. Even on combat patrol you’re thinking I’m just doing my job. You think about your mission and your specific purpose. Your whole crew was your family.”

He said flying missions carried around 15 people.

“You had constant radio interference; sometimes propaganda transmissions of people crying and wailing,” he said. “You got used to it.”

He remembered reading that the squadron was disbanded in 1975 and he is still proud to think he was one of the last people to experience the EC-121. He called his wartime experience “captivating.”

“That’s part of the way I am. I’ve always been able to adjust to situations,” he said.

Miller recalled taking R&R in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Taiwan, most often at Sangley Point across from Manila. He remembers the beauty of Pagsanjan Falls – still a major attraction in the Philippines -and the friendliness of the Philippine people.

“[Ferdinand] Marcos was in power then. It was dangerous, but interesting. When his security guards were around nobody got in their way,” he said. “In a foreign country like that, we stayed in groups and we had fun, albeit dangerous fun. We were tight.”

Miller served 18 months, through 1965 and into 1966, in the Vietnam Theater. He said his anti-war sentiments took root during that time.

“It became very clear to us that we were invading a country that didn’t want to be invaded,” he said adding that he had mixed feelings about never returning to the Philippines.

Getting out

His second duty station was in San Diego with a carrier based squadron. He was preparing to exit the military with six month left when he was tapped for a re-deployment to Vietnam. “I protested to no avail,” he said.

The weekend before his scheduled deployment, he and a crew mate who was also due to deploy stopped at a chief petty officer friends’ house for drinks, and on the way back to base got into a car accident. His friend was killed and he spent two months in a hospital with a fractured skull and other injuries.

“We were immature,” he said. “We had a lot of anxiety of being against the war and being redeployed.” He said he spent his recovery focused on getting out. Miller recovered from his injuries and obtained an early out to go to school. He returned to Baltimore in 1967 and enrolled in Catonsville Community College.

The next years he moved around from school to playing guitar in a rock band to seeking a music career in California. “I moved 13 times in three years while I was in the Los Angeles area,” he said. “I was searching for something.”

He returned to Baltimore again in 1970 and returned to school at University of Maryland, Baltimore County but left again to work in Florida with a friend. “I didn’t go back to school until 1999 when I was 52,” he smiled.

He recalled the Civil Rights era and said his empathy with minorities is due to his father’s moral character.

“I remember the all-white and all-black schools and other facilities in North Carolina, but my father taught me to treat everybody the same, no matter the color. Civil rights was as disturbing as the Vietnam war and being a war protester it made me feel really bad that people were actually being treated that way in the United States of America.

“It was a crazy time. The country was dealing with all kinds of things and part of me just wanted to get away from everything,” he said.

On a whim, he moved to West Virginia. His father had passed away and it was just a short drive from his mother. He opened a campground, and a horse business. Neither business worked out, but he said life there came naturally to him and he loved it.

Miller returned once again to Baltimore due to his mother’s illness. After her death he dabbled in other business ventures that also didn’t work out.

“So, I was 52 and I started thinking more clearly about myself and my future,” he said. “I thought I might be ready to go back to school.”

With his past credits and military training, Miller was able to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology in two years from the University of West Virginia with a 3.6 GPA. Back in Baltimore again, he took a job at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, then went earned his master’s in counseling psychology at the University of Baltimore. He worked as a psychology associate in the Maryland prison system as well as an assistant director of residential services for Volunteers of America before applying for a VA position in 2012.

Working with veterans

Today, he is a Vocational Development Specialist working with the Homeless Program at Perry Point VA Medical Center in Perryville.

“I love what I do,” Miller said. “We have a great team that’s top notch. And being a veteran helps because it’s a connection that gives me credibility. Patients with PTSD who have been exposed to similar trauma they trust him “a little bit more.”

Looking back, he acknowledges that for a time he was “completely lost.”

“My life had a lot of ups and downs but a lot of really tremendous experiences,” he said. “I don’t think I would appreciate that without that wartime experience. It’s interesting that the beginning of my adult life began with my service experience and in my waning years, I’m with the VA. I couldn’t have predicted the way it all turned out.”

Miller is a Harford County resident now and he and his wife dote on their four grandchildren. He said he thinks the country really misses something by not requiring young people into some kind of public service.

“It hurts that after the recent 13 years of war people don’t understand what our service members are going through because the public is so isolated from the experience. There is no public call to duty and sacrifice as there was in the Second World War. And ultimately, it hurts the VA when it comes to funding and that hurts veterans.

“Veterans are a specific group that has gone through specific difficult experiences for their country,” he said. “By now, we ought to understand what they have risked and have a lot more respect for that.”

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Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.

On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.

Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.

This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”

For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at amanda.r.rominiecki.civ@mail.mil.

Story by Yvonne Johnson, APG News