For all its embrace of diversity, there is one population that is vanishingly scarce in Lower Manhattan: active duty U.S. military personnel. “There are probably about five of us,” reflects the U.S. Army’s Lieutenant Colonel Marci Miller, who lives in Battery Park City. “I know there are a few Coast Guard officers on active duty, and some soldiers stationed at Fort Wadsworth, on Staten Island, also live Downtown. But I’m pretty sure that I’m the only Army officer.”
Colonel Miller has served her country in uniform for 24 years. “I’m originally from Oklahoma,” she recalls, “where I enlisted after high school. College was boring, and I had a friend who had joined the Army. It sounded like something exciting that not a whole lot of people in my hometown were doing. Right after I came in, I was assigned as a counter-intelligence specialist.” Assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, she spent most of her enlisted career with the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Command.
But that was only the first chapter in Colonel Miller’s service. She went on to finish college while serving in the Army, and then to attend officer candidate school. “Enlisted soldiers are the smallest commissioning source,” she notes. “We account for only about ten percent of the officers’ ranks.” Colonel Miller reflects of her unconventional path up the chain of command that, “I didn’t have a very well-thought-out plan,” and adds with self-deprecating humor, “I probably would have screwed it up if I had tried to map it out in advance.”
In 1997, she was given the gold bars of a second lieutenant, and reassigned to branched ordnance. “That means I focused on munitions and maintenance,” she explains, “which took me to Germany and Korea as a platoon leader.” Returning to the United States, she was promoted to company commander and assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. From there, she departed for the first of three tours of duty in Iraq, with the 588th Maintenance Company. “We were part of the initial invasion in 2003, in which I served as a staff officer. Our unit was responsible for maintenance for all the coalition forces.”
She recalls overcoming the language barrier between the 48 allies by, “playing a lot of charades to describe the differences between our equipment and theirs. Initially, every nation brought their own gear, but over time it was easier for the United States just to supply everybody’s equipment. Once we started doing that, soldiers from other nations could at least understand us.”
Colonel Miller returned to America in 2004, and continued serving stateside for a year, but was then reassigned to Iraq in 2005. “On my first tour, I wasn’t really responsible for soldiers,” she recalls. “But in my second rotation, I had 350 soldiers under my command and was directly responsible for them.”
“For units that could stay inside the wire,” she recalls, in a reference to the fortified compounds where many Americans in Iraq were based, “everybody was pretty safe. But we were always on the road. This was during the surge, in 2005 and 2006, which was a very dangerous time — the height of hostilities. We were on the road for 364 consecutive days.”
“We operated mostly at night because of the heat,” she remembers. “It’s very hard to be vigilant in the middle of the night in the desert, but we had to be. I had hundreds of soldiers spread across five locations, and we’d run combat convoys between them. A couple of times, our conveys were stopped by corrupt Iraqi soldiers or police, who threatened to confiscate the entire convoy.”
“I knew when I went,” she reflects, “that it was very unlikely that I would take back everybody who went with me.” This proved grimly prescient when two separate incidents killed soldiers under her command, as improvised explosive devices blew up the vehicles in which they were riding. “The phone calls to those two families were the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” she remembers. “There were five companies in our battalion and none of them came home with everybody,” she recalls.
“I don’t think I took a deep breath for that entire year, until the airplane touched back down in the United States,” Colonel Miller remembers. “Combat keeps you are on point and constantly adrenalized. Every second of every day, somebody in our unit was at risk. Anyone who says they have gone into combat and remained unchanged is lying. It’s just a question of whether you let it take over.”
After serving in Iraq, she was assigned as a general’s aide at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an arsenal and weapons testing facility in Maryland, and promoted to major. After stints at Fort Eustis and Fort Story in Virginia, she then deployed back to Iraq in 2009.
“On my third tour, I was a brigade staff officer and distribution chief, which made me responsible for every truck that moved from Kuwait to Iraq,” she says. “I was overseeing 1,000 trucks per day. It was most challenging job I’ve ever had. My first two deployments were physical or emotional challenges, but this was the biggest mental challenge. Thousands of soldiers were depending on us for daily shipments of food and other supplies.”
Returning to the United States in 2011, she was assigned for three years to the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami. “We covered Central and South America, and I was the chief of deployment operations, which made me responsible for transportation,” she explains. This brought her a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
When her Southern Command rotation ended in 2014, Colonel Miller was assigned to New York as a professor of military science, responsible for training young officer candidates in the R.O.T.C. program at St. John’s University, in Queens, where she also commands Red Storm Battalion. “There are two ways to be a battalion commander in Army,” she explains. “Either in a line unit, as the commander of five companies, or else by training cadets on a university campus. The former would have caused me to be away from my daughter,” Jordan, who is four years old. “So I chose this route,” Colonel Miller reflects, “which still allows me to contribute.”
As an instructor, she says, “I try to impart to college students who are going to be second lieutenants that, no matter how diligent you are, no matter how much you train, you can’t prevent losses.” Colonel Miller notes that, “kids who volunteer today are coming aboard in a time of war. We have so many young soldiers come back from combat with the inability to adapt or trust, because in Iraq, you always had to assume that everybody was the enemy, but you could not take action as if they were. That’s a very hard thing for brain to assimilate. It comes down to figuring out how to shut it off, finding a way not to think about it by not focusing on it.”
“Jordan saves me from this,” she explains, “because I have to take care of her instead of thinking about it.” Jordan is also Colonel Miller’s reason for living in Battery Park City. “We looked in many neighborhoods, but was I sold immediately on this one. The energy of the City is something that can’t be replicated, and living in Battery Park City means I get to take her to school in the morning,” she says. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Colonel Miller expects to retire from the Army next year. Afterward, she says, “I still want to contribute. I may look for a position with a non-profit organization that works with underprivileged kids, maybe in camps. What I don’t want is something where I would travel a lot and be separated from Jordan.” She adds with a smile, “I also wouldn’t mind having a little bit less responsibility.”
“But I’d like to stay in New York after retiring,” Colonel Miller says. “This is a great place for Jordan to grow up.” She expects the transition to civilian life to be an adjustment, however. “The Army is not a job,” Colonel Miller reflects. “It’s a lifestyle, 365 days per year. I can’t think of a better group of people to spend time with.”
About the nation she has spent her adult life defending, Colonel Miller observes, “we need to get back to the idea and the ideal of service. This is a very entitled society, which is something I try to prevent in Jordan. She is going to grow up in a situation where she doesn’t have to worry about anything, and I have to work to temper that and make her grateful for what she has and instill a sense of community.”