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Lige Miller

An Appalachian Hero

In Vietnam, some days, we would be pulling bodies
off the helicopters as fast as we could, so that they
could take off and go back for more. Some of them
were boys that I knew, who were friends of mine.
The bodies were stacked so high; it was horrible.

By Denny Meyer

Lige Lee Miller is decorated with a Bronze Star with V for Valor for his service in Vietnam.
He was drafted into the Army in 1966. On the train from his small West Virginia town, he rode with other local boys on their way to boot camp.  The others were all white and straight, he was black and gay.  As the train traveled through the night, leaving the ridges and hollers of home behind, they made a pact; they would stick together and protect each other in the Army.  Black, white, straight, and gay, Nazarene and Baptist, what mattered to them was that no one was going to mess with one of their own.  They had grown up together and gone to school together, and now, together they were headed straight into the heart of hell -Vietnam.  They would be loyal to each other.  That was more than 40 years ago; imagine!

Lige was one of 9 children in a traditional fundamentalist family.  Love, faith, and self respect were the genuine common community values in the small town West Virginia world that he grew up in.  Somehow he'd realized he was gay and an early age and suffered through the fears, harassment, and isolation; and yet grew up self confident and without shame.  He participated in ROTC at West Virginia State College, which had transitioned from being all black to integration in the year he began there, 1964.

Like many who were drafted in those days, he simply checked "No" on the induction form where it asked if he was a homosexual.  And as with all others who did so knowing that they were gay, that made him a patriotic volunteer; he didn't have to go.  Due to his experience in ROTC, he became the guideon in boot camp. He went on to become a corpsman, which led to a lifetime career in hospital and nursing home work.

In Vietnam, he was not out to others, preferring to focus on his job of caring for others.  There was all sorts of entertainment, for relieving combat stress, such as impromptu drag shows in which both straight and gay soldiers participated.  But, Corpsman Miller worked the medical wards day and night, volunteering for extra duty to meet the constant need of tending to the wounded.

On May 29th, 1968, during the second Tet Offensive, his base was nearly overrun as he and others moved all the patients to secure bunkers as artillery flew all around them.  At times like that, one does not think about the medal that may follow, one thinks only about saving every single soldier no matter what.  The courage comes from one's upbringing as an American; it has everything to do with integrity and nothing to do with whether one is gay or straight, white or black.  And so along with four others he earned his Bronze Star and V for valor on that day of dire battle.

Nearly every midnight, at times, they were mortared and at those times everyone had to give up sleep and function at their highest level of bravery and ability.  As a corpsman, he said, "there were some days, we would be pulling bodies off the helicopters as fast as we could, so that they could take off and go back for more. Some of them were boys that I knew, who were friends of mine. The bodies were stacked so high; it was horrible."

"I am no longer able to go out on the fourth of July or News Year's Eve because the fireworks remind me of incoming mortar rounds, enemy fire, from 40 years ago." He told me.

After his war service, veteran Miller went back to school in West Virginia, and later in Wisconsin, and then moved to Long Beach, California where he has lived most of his life now.  He has worked as an orderly, in social services, and in convalescence homes.  He is now himself disabled with arthritis.

As a gay man, he did not join the traditional veterans groups which have been unwelcoming.  And so it was only in recent years that he became aware that his long ago service in Vietnam entitled him to disability benefits and VA medical treatment.

Asked to look back to the time he spent at war in service to his nation, Lige Miller said he didn't regret it; he would do it all again, even knowing what he does now all these years later.

When a local Long Beach newspaper recently wrote about him as a gay veteran.  His VA doctor gave him a hug of affirmation.  We have come a long way since he served as a young man, but some things have not changed;  basic human dignity remains the same in the way we interact, and yet our military's policy regarding brave gay and lesbian young men and women willing and able to serve their nation remains unchanged to this day in its stance that they are not good enough to serve.  Lige Miller's medal says otherwise.