ASHLAND -- Vietnam veteran Jack “Squirt” Miller, of Ashland, never let unfortunate circumstances determine how he lived his life, family said.
Miller, who passed on Dec. 26, 2019, was permanently blinded at 20 years old. He underwent numerous surgeries and had more than 375 pieces of shrapnel removed from his body after being severely injured in a March 9, 1969 battle during the Vietnam War.
Miller’s Company was involved in an attack on a fortified North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bunker on March 9, 1969. Four troopers were killed and 20 -- including Miller -- were wounded.
“He was so positive and outgoing that you just forgot what had happened to him. Half the time I forgot he was blind,” said Miller’s niece, Tami Yuncker. “That’s just the kind of person he was.”
She recalled at least once when someone unknowingly showed a photo to her Uncle Jack.
“Check this out, Jack,” Yuncker recalled the conversation.
Miller picked up the photo and held it closer to his face. He had one glass eye and the other was an empty socket.
“Oh yeah, I see,” Miller responded.
“He’d just go right along with it,” Yuncker said.
Some didn’t even believe he was blind, Miller’s nephew, Dan Miller said with a laugh.
“He used to say, the neighbor said there's no way he's blind because they'd seen him go outside,” Dan Miller said. “He’d get wood. He built his own little campfires and split wood with an ax.”
He didn’t let his injuries keep him from doing what he loved. He strung a rope to lead him to a pond on his property so he could go fishing on his own. He did carpentry work, rebuilt car engines and earned a brown belt in karate.
Miller once won a no-contact karate tournament, his family said. It was a “no-contact” tournament, where each participant started by standing in a square at the center of the room.
“You had to go forward so many steps, do so many moves and come back, turn, go this way, that way, all four directions and do different types of stuff,” Dan Miller said. “And when you completed that, you needed to be as close as you could to being back in that square.
“And when he did it, he was the only one to be completely back in that square. His form was perfect.”
Earlier this year, Miller was recognized along with General Barry McCaffrey and Emerson "Top" Trainer by First Cavalry Division soldiers from Company B, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team at a September ceremony in Fort Hood, Texas.
The trio had all been assigned to Company B and experienced intense and savage combat while deployed in Vietnam between 1968 to 1969.
Miller assaulted and knocked out a bunker that was placing direct fire on his squad during a March 9, 1969 battle. He was injured by a grenade and machine gun only a week before his 21st birthday.
“You couldn't even imagine the extent of the injuries he received. Shot, blown up, stabbed all within seconds,” Dan Miller said about his uncle. “A grenade blew up on him that’s why the 300 some pieces of shrapnel were removed from his body.”
Even years later, he’d find pieces of shrapnel “working their way out.”
“He’d be like, ‘Oh, it must be another piece of shrapnel moving, working out. It's no big deal,’” Yuncker said.
She attended the September ceremony that paid tribute to her uncle. Dan Miller intended to go, but had to cancel last minute due to possible COVID-19 exposure.
“It’s a hell of an honor,” Dan Miller said.
But had Jack Miller been here to accept the honor, Miller said his uncle would have likely declined.
“I can just see his facial expression. He'd be like, ‘No, I don't want that. I thank you guys. That's all so sweet, but you don't have to do that,’” Dan Miller said. “He was a very humble man.”
At the ceremony, Tim Trainer spoke of his experience with Miller. The son of another honoree, Trainer met Miller in 2003, 34 years after Miller lost his vision.
“While his brothers in arms are able to speak to his bravery and courage in combat, I met a man who inspired anyone and everyone to live, regardless of ability or disability,” Trainer said. “We may think that he lived in the dark without the benefit of vision, but Jack ‘Squirt’ Miller cast a bright light on how we should live. He had no time for self-pity, he accepted his fate and moved on.
“He was a man who provided us with an important life lesson. He may have been small in stature, but his example reminds me every day that I have never had a bad day in my life and that I have nothing to complain about — a lesson so many of us need. His example would serve each of us well today given the current national and global challenges.”
When Miller was recovering from his injuries in the hospital, a fellow veteran approached him. Miller was attempting to write a letter to his parents.
“He was saying, I was hit in Vietnam, and his very next words were, ‘I'm fine. Everything is OK,’” Yuncker recalled hearing a story from a Vietnam vetaran reunion Miller once held at his house.
The veteran helped Miller finish the letter, but didn’t recognize him at that time. It was only at the reunion years later that he and Miller realized their interaction.
“He was telling us a story about this guy that was all wrapped up writing this letter home. And Jack goes, ‘Yeah, that was me,’” Yuncker said.
She had helped Miller plan the reunion, and as a result, he invited her to attend.
Miller was born on March 17, 1949 to Sybil and Harold “Skin” Miller. He was raised in Savannah, but later moved to Ashland.
He was married, divorced and then remarried to Cynthia Armstrong, who died shortly after he did.
He received an award for outstanding community achievement from President Jimmy Carter on June 3, 1979.
“He really was one of the best,” Yuncker said.
He died on Dec. 26, 2019. He had long struggled with health problems and had already long outlived doctors’ predictions.
“They once told him if he did everything perfect, he had three years tops to live. And he made it at least 10 years after that,” Dan Miller said. “And he lived life to the fullest then as he always had.”