Couple deals with two sons off to war

Jane Carlson

Rod and Terri Miller’s home was destroyed in a fire in 1982 when their oldest son Gary was a year old.

They lost everything.

Rod lost his good-paying factory job when Briggs Pottery in Abingdon closed in the late 1990s, and he was forced to turn to truck driving to support the family.

Gary, now 27, was in basic training three years ago when doctors discovered a softball-sized tumor in his then-infant daughter Jillian’s abdomen and diagnosed her with neuroblastomic cancer.

But nothing Rod and Terri have endured has come close to being as hard sending their only sons off to war zones on the other side of the world.

Their younger son Billy, 23, who has been at Fort Bragg, N.C., since August, will ship out to Afghanistan with other members of the Galva National Guard unit Oct. 27, exactly one year after his brother left for a 15-month tour in Iraq.

“Your heart is breaking. But you still have to stand behind them and be proud,” Terri said.

Keeping in touch

Eight months ago, Rod and Terri moved to a modest, cozy bungalow on Galesburg’s southeast side. Two service flags hang in a front window.

Rod’s semi truck is parked in a long drive on the south side of the home. Another service flag hangs on the truck, along with a yellow ribbon window decal that reads “Keep our heroes safe.”

Inside the home, small American flags are tucked in flower pots. Framed photographs of Gary and Billy in uniform hang on the walls. At the couple’s dining room table, a laptop and cell phone are within arm’s reach.

“We sit and wait for his face to pop up online,” Terri said. “One of our laptops is on all the time.”

The couple have been able to communicate regularly with Gary in Iraq, sending emails, chatting on Yahoo! Messenger and talking on cell phones, but they are not sure how much they’ll be communicate with Billy in Afghanistan.

When Terri’s cell phone blares from the table, she anxiously snatches it up.

“What’s up?” booms a voice on the other end. It’s Gary, checking to see how his parents are doing — and wondering about his brother’s upcoming deployment.

The two briefly discuss Terri’s trip to Fort Bragg. She’s getting ready to fly there to spend time with Billy before he is deployed, and Gary wants to make sure he gets to talk to his brother, too. Rod will be on the road for part of that time, but hopes to meet up with his wife and son at the base at least a day before Billy leaves so he can say goodbye.

“You try to call me back later, OK? If I don’t talk to you tonight, son, I’ll talk to you some time over the weekend. Take care and I love you, Gary. OK, son. Bye-bye.”

After snapping the cell phone closed, Terri wipes a tear from her eye. Her manicured fingernails are painted red, white and blue.

“You just never know how long you’re going to get to talk to him,” Terri said.

Doubling their vigilance

Rod and Terri don’t want to talk about the war.

“For it or against it, we try not to think about it. It just makes the days longer,” Rod said.

They don’t want to discuss whether they think invading Iraq was a mistake, whether the surge worked or whether there should be a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops.

They avoid reading, listening to or watching any news about the war, because it’s easier to get through the day not knowing what’s going on, and they don’t pay much attention to what the pundits and political candidates are saying this election season.

They obey the military’s request not to share the photos Gary sends them from Iraq with the media and they are mum on the specifics of their sons’ missions in the Middle East.

But they do openly question what would happen if a natural disaster happened in Illinois when thousands of members of the state’s National Guard are serving overseas.

They cringe when they are talking to Gary on the phone and the call is suddenly lost.

They wince when he’s not online to chat at the usual time each night.

They wonder how they’ll find the strength to double their vigilance once their other son also is serving on foreign soil.

“Our boys have always been our everything,” Terri said. “We have sacrificed everything to give them what we didn’t have.”

Realities of adulthood

Rod served four and half years in the Marine Corps in the 1970s, during the evacuation of Vietnam.

After his service the couple married and settled in Knox County, where both of them were raised.

Both of the boys were known as mischievous and fun-loving while they attended Abingdon High School, their parents said.

Gary played high school football and raised beagles at the family’s rural St. Augustine home.

Billy held down a part-time job at Hardee’s in Abingdon all through high school and had a knack for wiring stereos and repairing engines.

Both of the boys were in 4-H and showed cattle at the county fair.

While their dad is a veteran, the boys didn’t consider careers in the military until they were in their twenties, when the realities of adulthood and the lack of decent paying jobs in the area set in.

When they started thinking about enlisting, their father asked them: “Boys, do you know what you’re doing? Do you know there’s a war going on?”

They enlisted in the National Guard within months of each other. Gary was still in basic training when Billy left for basic training. Gary would later enlist full-time in order to support his wife, Audra, and daughter, Jillian, who now is cancer free.

“The only way he could see to support his family was to enlist,” Rod said.

Gary had tried to get Billy to enlist full-time, too, so that they could be deployed together.

But Billy had joined the Guard because he wanted to get a college degree. He stayed in the Guard and started taking classes at Carl Sandburg College while working at a local auto shop.

When his Guard responsibilities increased, Billy quit taking classes and started to prepare for the inevitable deployment.

“Neither one of them was upset about having to go. They were willing to fulfill their obligations,” Rod said.

Gary has just re-enlisted for six more years in the Army. His 15-month tour will be over in February, but it’s likely he’ll have to return to Iraq at some point.

“If that’s what he chooses to do, I stand behind what he chooses to do,” Terri said. “We will stand behind our boys no matter what. That’s everything our 30 years of marriage has been about — the boys.”

On the road

When Rod, an over the road truck driver, goes on a run, Terri is right there beside him — and so are their laptops and cell phones. On a recent run, Terri spent three hours chatting with Gary while Rod maneuvered the truck down the Interstate.

All over the country, people ask them about their soldiers, whose photographs have been made into decals that are affixed to the back of the cab.

Side by side, the couple feels better able to respond to people who are quick to make judgments about the war without offering support for the troops and the families who are affected by it.

“We’ve got it made over some people because we’re doing our job together,” Rod said. “We have each other all the time. I don’t leave and go to an 8-hour job.”

Being on the road also gives them the freedom to frequently visit Audra and Jillian at Fort Campbell, Ky. Supporting and spending time with their daughter-in-law and granddaughter — as well as Billy’s girlfriend back in Galesburg — helps ease the heartbreak of being away from their sons.

The couple also is getting involved with the National Guard Family Readiness Group to get to know other families with loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“No families have to go through what military families go through. I know we’re not the only ones,” Rod said.

Still, every day is a struggle for the Millers. They find themselves staring off into space, trying to find a balance between being supportive of their sons and trying not to think about the danger they might be in.

“We go to bed and we don’t sleep,” Rod said.

They try to keep busy with work, but a nose-diving economy has slowed freight, meaning there are fewer runs for the couple to do.

Instead, they are sitting at home as the weather gets cooler and the nights get longer, waiting to hear from Gary, waiting to say goodbye to Billy, waiting until both of their sons are home.

Last year, Gary was in Iraq for Thanksgiving and Christmas. He’ll be gone for the holidays this year, too, and so will Billy.

Rod and Terri said they don’t know if they’ll put up holiday decorations this year. They wonder if they should give Billy his Christmas gift before he boards the plane next week.

“You just don’t know what to do,” Rod said.

Gary will be stateside in January, Billy in September.

In the meantime, their parents plan to be on the road as much as they can.

“There’s nothing to come home to,” Terri said. “It just doesn’t hardly seem fair.”

Jane Carlson can be reached