Staying Power: Wounded Soldier advocate finds his calling
November 12, 2008
MONTEREY, Calif. , Nov. 10, 2008 - Doug Miller never really knew what he wanted to do when he grew up - that was, until after he retired this year.
The 65-year-old combat veteran and former technology businessman finally found his calling, he said, taking care of Army wounded warriors.
"I think we owe so much to these people who have served our country and who are now going through a whole lot more than they expected to go through. I want to do something for them," Miller said.
Miller took the federal civilian job this year after a friend called and asked if he'd be interested. With his daughter serving with the U.S. State Department in Iraq and his son serving as an Army helicopter pilot, Miller jumped at the opportunity.
"I just felt compelled to go back and serve some more. This is the best thing I could do at my age," Miller said. "This is a chance for me to come back and do something that's needed."
Miller is a retired Army helicopter pilot and two-tour combat veteran. That usually opens doors for him as he calls those under his watch and introduces himself. He has 84 cases right now, although he is supposed to have only 30. Eventually, those extra cases will be turned over to two other case managers.
Of Miller's cases, about 70 percent of the troops are retired or awaiting the outcomes of physical evaluation boards. Two continue to serve on active duty in duty assignments, while others still are working through their recovery in warrior transition units on military installations and at treatment facilities. Miller's territory includes northern California and parts of Nevada.
Poking Around the Edges
On a typical day, Miller spends most of his time on the phone, on e-mail or on the road. He calls every soldier once a month, Miller said.
"It's not just to have a brief conversation, but it's to, as best we can, assess the total family environment," Miller said. "We want to know how the soldier is doing but we want also want to know how the family is doing as well. Because a lot of times what's happened to the soldier has a significant impact on the family dynamics."
For the most part, he is a generalist, with no particular specialty, Miller said. His power comes from his reach back to Washington, D.C., that gives him access to specialists and senior leaders to whom many times the soldiers and families do not have access.
"We identify an issue and we call headquarters. They do all the research, find the right resources and come to us with some recommendations and a solution," Miller said.
Sometimes servicemembers or families are upset over bureaucratic snafus or, once they are away from a military treatment facility, have feelings of being ignored, Miller said.
"Sometimes you have to poke around the edges and not push too hard," Miller said of his conversations. "But as you establish a trust over several conversations, over several weeks or months, they begin to open up."
Miller said one soldier was extremely frustrated over not being able to receive his Traumatic Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance -- a one-time payment aimed at helping severely injured soldiers through immediate financial needs brought on by their injuries. The amount varies depending on the injury, but it often makes it financially possible for families to be with the servicemembers during recovery.
For six months, the soldier's paperwork kept getting rejected over a discrepancy. The soldier was so frustrated by the time Miller first called him, he didn't even want to talk, Miller said.
"I said 'Just give me a chance. I know who to call,'" Miller said. "He gave me chance. I called him back and said 'Your payment's been approved.' We're the best of friends now. We talk all the time.
"It's not that I did anything. It's that I was there and showed some concern."
Care Plus Marketing Equal Advocacy
Miller's first objective is to let the soldiers and families know the Army still cares about them. After that, his goal is to help them along their transition, whether it is back to military duty or into civilian life.
"Whether they stay in the service or they get out and go to school or get a job, we want to help them, mentor them, facilitate them along the way," Miller said.
He helps the soldiers develop a five-year plan that takes them through their transition and sets goals as steps along the way.
Miller's job complements the efforts of the warrior transition units. There, troops have squad leaders and a command structure to help them through problems.
Part of Miller's time is spent meeting with and speaking to private and civic groups that want to help wounded warriors. He is active in his local Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pleasanton, Calif., and works with the Sentinels of Freedom, a nonprofit group that provides scholarships to help veterans become self- sufficient.
About 80 percent of Miller's time is spent talking to soldiers and families, and the rest marketing the program and advocating on soldiers' behalf.
The experiences of his past two jobs, as an Army officer and in corporate marketing, have provided him with a perfect combination of skills for his efforts now, Miller said.
"As a government employee I can't solicit help for them, but I can make people in the community aware they are there," Miller said.
To be successful as an advocate, you have to have a passion for taking care of soldiers, Miller said. While he was attending training in Washington with other new advocates, he was impressed by the overall sense of dedication, Miller said.
"Everybody was very emotional," Miller said. "It was one of the most emotional experiences to hear everyone's story."
When Miller first considered the job, taken on in what was supposed to be his golden years, he told his wife he would stick with it for a year or two, he said.
But somewhere down the line, something changed.
"I think I'm going to have difficulty telling my wife, but I don't see any reason to quit," Miller said. "I don't know how long I'll do the job, but I can't see why I'd ever want to quit."
Miller said he used to joke during his time in the military and while he was working in the corporate world that he never knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.
He's not joking anymore.
"Now, basically, I know. Everything I was doing in my life was preparing me for this job." Miller said.