Willie Miller: Life After Service and Trauma

What are we to do with what we have attained when we are done serving? What are we to do with the trauma we’ve experienced in service and the baggage that it drops into our lives?

BY ADAM LAVIGNE

The best examples for living our lives often come from the unlikeliest of sources. Former NFL player Willie Miller is one of those sources whose story I happened upon and felt compelled to share.

Never heard of Willie Miller? You’re not alone. In fact, all but the most ardent football fans have probably never heard of Willie Miller, at least not until this recent writeup in Slate was published. That’s where I discovered him.

Though he had a solid NFL career, playing as a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams for a total of seven seasons, ending in 1982, he was never a superstar, and he had a quiet persona that didn’t make waves in the media. After his NFL career, he ended up coaching a variety of high school football teams until his retirement in 2013.

This is a typical, successful career for a professional athlete, but there’s much more to his story. What Willie Miller went through prior to his time in the NFL and how it affected the rest of his life is what was most astounding to me.

After graduating high school in 1965, rather than taking one of the numerous college scholarship offers for his athletic prowess, Miller joined the Army, becoming a Green Beret. He served in that role for five and a half years, and as a result of his service, Miller received the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Like many Vietnam veterans, he went through his share of combat and discovered the aftereffects of it far too well.

Though it certainly wasn’t typical for a Vietnam veteran to return from service and start a career in the NFL, Miller’s experience after returning home was not dissimilar to that of other veterans in many ways. When asked about his service, he would usually speak in broad generalities, because on the rare occasion he would dive deeper, the listener would typically disengage in the conversation because of the realities of war—realities that Miller experienced and that the listener couldn’t even process.

When his teammates asked about war, Miller responded in a direct manner. “I tell ’em the truth,” Miller explained. “Death isn’t beautiful. When it gets gory, they drop the subject.” Willie Miller understood war well, understood the effects of it, and when others engaged him on it, he was honest.

Like so many other combat veterans, Miller was plagued by nightmares. For decades, he had to relive things he experienced as a young man for decades. It didn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop. The attempts of a life of anonymity couldn’t hush the voices in his head and the dreams in his subconscious. Beyond that, Miller didn’t think what he did was special. It was just something he did and he couldn’t shake it.

As veterans or first responders, how often do we find ourselves in a similar situation? We may know the realities of experiences we have faced and realities of war, but we just chalk it up to it being part of life. We hold onto the identity of the uniform, the titles we’ve had, our roles and responsibilities, yet we know that there is more to us and to life than that. But that truth is difficult to actually confront. 

The identities we hold onto in life are critical. The right ones allow us to flourish beyond any dreams we’ve ever had. But placing our identity in the wrong things—like our rank, role, position, or branch—will limit our potential for growth because we were made for far more than that. Miller understood this.

What are we to do with what we have attained when we are done serving? What are we to do with the trauma we’ve experienced in service and the baggage that it drops into our lives? Look at Miller’s approach.

When asked of the value of a quiet life and of the impact one can make, Miller said, “I’d rather hear about people who have lived spectacular lives. I don’t mean important people. I look at small persons no one seems interested in. To me, they’re the ones worth listening to and hearing about—the unsung heroes. Like high school coaches, people who develop athletes. Like ministers who try to steer people in the right direction.”

Miller didn’t just value the quiet life—he chose it. He chose to be the “small,” unspectacular person few were interested in. He didn’t merely develop athletes or students. He didn’t just coach a football team to many wins. Miller changed lives. He saw his experiences, realized the immensity that came with them, but also the responsibility. He understood that he had a second chance and chose to allow his trauma to fuel him to make the world a better place after experiencing the horrific things of war.

Allow the trauma you experienced to be part of your life. Don’t hide from it—confront it. Be proud of your service. It is part of your story, but it is not the totality of who you are.

Who you are is far greater than a uniform. It is far greater than a citizenship. It is far greater than a pedigree. Who you are starts with understanding that you have a role and position in history and were made for a purpose beyond your wildest dreams.

Miller’s story points to all of these things. He wasn’t just an NFL star. He wasn’t just a Special Forces operator. He wasn’t just a Vietnam vet and black American in a tumultuous time. He understood that he was made for more than the things he accomplished. He understood that the lessons learned in war, trauma, and service can be used again and that living a quiet, unassuming life is valuable.

Willie Miller understood it—now it’s up to us to learn from it.

 

ADAM LAVIGNE is the Expansion Coordinator for REBOOT Recovery.

 

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