When Sean Miller joined the Marine Corps, he had three goals: to test himself, fight on the front lines, and be a role model and leader for Marines. Growing up, Sean lived in an abusive family and was abandoned and bullied. Those experiences hardened his resolve to be better and do better than the people who had hurt him. “I decided to toughen myself up,” he recalled. “I really wanted to take on the leadership role of helping younger men by being a caring individual who would look out for them—someone who’s been there and done that.” Throughout an 18-year military career that included six deployments, Sean had plenty of opportunities to lead Marines.
During college, Sean interned for two years with the CIA. Initially, he thought about a career in intelligence, but realized he wanted something else, so he applied and was accepted to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS). “I decided the Marines were the ones who would test me the most and it would be the most rewarding achievement to earn the honor of being called a Marine. I just showed up at a recruiting station. I said, ‘I don’t need you to sell me, I just need you to sign me.’”
A year-and-a-half into Sean’s first tour, he was deployed to the Philippines. “I was in California when September 11 happened,” Sean explained. “But I was deploying to the Far East.”
In 2003, when his unit returned to Camp Pendleton, Sean asked for an extension because he knew the unit was heading to Ramadi, Iraq. Instead, he was sent to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, while everyone he had served with in the Philippines went to Ramadi, and where the unit lost 35 men. “I had a number of friends who were wounded, maimed, or killed,” Sean said. As soon as he was eligible, he joined a USMC Reserve unit that was short of officers and bound for Fallujah, “because I felt bad about not being in Ramadi.” He became a platoon commander.
“That was the height of the bad times, in 2006,” Sean recalled.“During that tour, I was shot at often, and I would find rounds that had impacted my SAPI [body armor]. The body armor stopped all of the rounds from doing any damage, aside from generating contusions and bruising. I was blown up by RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and I drove on top of a massive IED, resulting in a traumatic brain injury, a broken sternum and collarbone, compressed vertebrae, a broken nose and ribs. I had shrapnel and other injuries from that incident as well. We lost another 11 Marines during that deployment. After that tour, I didn’t have to go back, but I did. I went back to Fallujah.”
“My injuries weren’t treated, mainly because of my pride. I was that gung-ho Marine who didn’t want anyone to know there was something going on or say that I was not deployable,” Sean said.
When Sean interned at the CIA he took a personality assessment that classified him as an extreme extrovert. Now, he is an extreme introvert. The transformation, he explained, started after his first tour in Fallujah. “During that tour, I began a slow, precipitous withdrawal from everybody and everything. I was unwilling to let anyone know about my problems, and my isolation, withdrawal, rage, and confusion regarding the meaning of life continued for the next twelve years –exacerbated by each deployment.”
He dealt with the pain and trauma by using alcohol to self-medicate and slow his mind down. Although he was away from the war zone in the Middle East, Sean still faced stressful active duty assignments. “I was assigned as a special advisor to a four-star officer in Korea for all affairs inside the DMZ. I was part of the negotiating team and I was a special investigator and team leader. We got shot at. You’d think, since we were in Korea, the conflict part of my job would end – but it didn’t,” he said.
Despite Sean’s continued struggles, he was assigned as the executive officer (XO) of an infantry battalion. “However, my struggles came to a high point in 2013. Alcohol wasn’t working. I was trying to hold on,” Sean said. “As the XO, the only person you can talk to is your commanding officer (CO), because you’re the only two field grade officers in the unit. I broke down and bawled in front of my CO, and he handed me a referral information card, meaning, ‘suck it up.’ The card entitled me to 12 free therapy sessions.”
At one point, Sean sought help from a psychiatrist embedded in his unit, but he didn’t tell him exactly what he was experiencing, “because I didn’t want to lose my job, or be declared not deployable.” The psychiatrist diagnosed Sean with anxiety disorder. After that, Sean deployed twice more to Afghanistan as a special advisor where, he said, “We were out there in the hinterlands, with little support, trying to teach and coach people who didn’t want to help themselves. We were in very bad and isolated positions and had hard firefights. Many more warriors were killed or wounded. When I came back from that tour, my PTSD completely spiraled out of control. Four months after I returned from Afghanistan in 2016, I hit the high-water mark for my PTSD. I experienced my most severe disassociated state, which lasted five days. I was a participant in my own life, but not in control.”
“Partly because of how my symptoms were treated during my earlier attempts to get help, as well as the strain my injury had placed on my relationships, and my worsening decision making capabilities, I decided that I had to escape,” he explained. “I planned my escape. I withdrew all my money from my bank account. I gathered all my survival gear, body armor, and weapons. I planned to go off the grid. I was going to chop my vehicle, make it unrecognizable, and go into hiding. I wanted someone to see I needed help, but no one was willing to take that step. I was married, but she’d finally had enough and we separated. My wife informed the police of my condition. My plea for help ended when a SWAT team found me in a hotel. Sixteen SWAT team members and 30 police officers came in to extract me because they didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“Since October 2016, I’ve been to 6 inpatient treatments and 11 months of partial hospitalization. Finally, the military decided to retire me. Since then, I’ve been getting treatment, but there are always too many cooks in the kitchen, which means no one’s in charge. There were so many people involved in my care that I didn’t know who to call or go to. I was assigned to the USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment, and had a recovery care coordinator, nurse care manager, PCN, and therapist. Finally, I talked to a buddy of mine who’d just been medically retired, and he said, ‘You should look up Sue [Waddingham, NMCRS Combat Casualty Assistance Visiting Nurse].’ So I called Sue.”
“Now, I don’t trust anybody but Sue. She shows earnestness, compassion, and care. She provides tough love. She checks on me. She directs me when I need to be directed to reach out to other people. When I don’t feel comfortable going to an appointment, because I’m not cool with unfamiliar circumstances or environments, she says, ‘So you want me to come?’ It’s such a relief knowing she’s there.”
She introduced me to another client of hers in a veterans group and recommended I join. She said, ‘He’s a good guy.’ I said, ‘Sue, if you think he’s a good guy, I know he’s a good guy. That’s all I need to know.’”
During transition from active duty to medical retirement over the past several months, Sue’s involvement in Sean’s life has been crucial. “I’m not being overly dramatic,” Sean said. “But if it hadn’t been for Sue, I would’ve given up a long time ago. I wouldn’t be here.”
“Because of our constant interaction, Sue knows when I need to be talked to or reached out to,” Sean explained. “She knows when to come and be a comforting second set of ears. Because of my TBI, I don’t pick up information quickly. At appointments, Sue asks questions I miss. Sometimes I’m drowning them out because I’m not understanding what they’re saying to me. She holds the clinicians accountable.”
The work of a Society visiting nurse includes both patient advocate and coordinator. Sue helps Sean manage the interactions between multiple therapists and how to discuss medications and whether or not they’re effective. “She understands my symptoms and what works for me and what doesn’t. She also helped me design an outpatient treatment plan that doesn’t require me to go to a medical facility. I realized that a healthier way to live is realigning what I do on a daily basis to mimic an outpatient structure. Every day I do yoga, go to AA meetings, therapy, and attend the veterans group meetings. I build structure throughout my day so there’s no idle time.”
“Sue has not only helped me stay stable on a daily basis, but also helped me build and reinforce a positive structure for my life. I’ve gained so much respect for her. She’ll never know what she’s done for me, even though I try to explain it to her. She’s a Godsend.”
“If I did not have Sue in my life, I would not be thinking there could be a positive outcome in my life. She’s given that to me. Just like she holds clinicians accountable, she does the same with me. Now, I don’t want to disappoint her because of the effort and time and emotional investment she’s put into me.”
“I actually market the Society’s Visiting Nurses program to fellow veterans who are going through the same things I’ve gone through. I use my experience with Sue to tell friends about different organizations and people who can help them. Because of my experience and the progress I’ve made, I’m able to provide sound advice for those who were like me two years ago and don’t see an end in sight. If there’s anything I could do for NMCRS, I’m on board. I’m a believer. I support the NMCRS Visiting Nurses program—it saved my life.”
Your support makes it possible for the Society’s life-saving Combat Casualty Assistance Visiting Nurses program to provide post-combat assistance for Sea Service members like Sean Miller.
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso