Excitement continues to build on Joint Base Lewis-McChord for the return of a Stryker combat brigade this summer after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
But that anticipation was overshadowed by sadness Wednesday as the base mourned the loss of another soldier assigned to the hard-hit 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Mourners gathered in a Fort Lewis chapel to remember Spc. James L. Miller, the 35th member of the 4,000-strong brigade reported killed since it deployed in July.
Capt. Rolando Silva, the brigade’s rear detachment chaplain, said Miller’s death is another reminder for soldiers and their families that the dangerous mission is far from over.
“The soldiers downrange, they already see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Silva said after the memorial ceremony. “But at the same time, they know they need to maintain their focus.”
Miller, a 21-year-old infantryman from Yakima, died March 29 when an enemy bomb exploded near his vehicle, according to the Department of Defense. He was assigned to C Company, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Sixty-nine service members with ties to Washington state have reportedly died in Afghanistan since the start of the war there in 2001. More than half lost their lives in the past year.
Miller was described as a quiet professional who was well-liked within the unit.
“He had no need to be seen or heard and didn’t expect anything in return for the hard work he put in,” wrote Sgt. 1st Class Michael Spalding, Miller’s platoon sergeant, in a tribute read at Wednesday’s ceremony. “He never complained about how difficult the mission or how bad the timing of a task. He just did his job. No questions or complaints.”
Miller was a dependable and safety-conscious Stryker driver who took pride in the cleanliness of his vehicle and equipment, Spalding wrote.
In another tribute read aloud, Lt. Col. Burton Shields, the battalion commander, wrote that Miller exemplified the Army value of selfless service and that his sacrifice won’t be forgotten.
“He gave so much of his life so others could remain free,” he said.
Miller grew up in Alaska and moved to Yakima a few years ago. He met his wife, Katie, at the local community college. He enlisted in the Army in September 2008 to support his family and serve his country. His daughter, Peyton, was born the following month while he was attending boot camp.
He reported to Fort Lewis in January 2009 and deployed to Afghanistan that July.
Scores of people lined the streets, some displaying large American flags, when Miller’s body arrived home and was driven to a funeral home on April 7. He was buried Saturday following a memorial service attended by more than 200 mourners in Zillah.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Miller is survived by his parents, Nicholas and Kimberly Miller, and his sister, Mandi Hannel.
Spalding said Miller had a good sense of humor behind his unassuming personality.
The platoon sergeant said he’d joke that the former Alaskan was from Canada, and kiddingly ask about the status of his green card.
Spalding said he revisited their inside joke just five minutes before the roadside bomb exploded.
“He laughed it off,” he recalled. “Spc. Miller laughed a lot.”
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427