ALLEGANY – Even when he was a teenager, folks here knew Patrick W. Miller was destined to be a leader.
He told his high school buddies he wanted to make a career for himself in the Army, starting first in ROTC at St. Bonaventure University. Family and friends were not surprised that in a decade’s time he had risen to the rank of major.
He served two tours in the Iraq War and returned home safely.
But on Wednesday, far from foreign enemies, Miller was wounded at Fort Hood, Texas, where a soldier went on a rampage and shot 19 comrades, killing three and then himself.
As word spread Thursday that the 32-year-old Miller, shot in the stomach, was going to live, this community of 1,800 in a valley beside the Allegheny River breathed a collective sigh of relief.
No one was more relieved than Miller’s mother.
“He wants to be up and walking around,” said Carole Miller during a short interview in her driveway with her 21-year-old son Tim. “He is doing better.”
And then she added, “You wouldn’t believe the support we have gotten from the community.”
That support has taken the form of prayers in response to the family’s request and there have been nearly endless telephone calls, plus messages of concern posted on social media sites.
Thursday evening, dozens gathered at Allegany Baptist Church on Maple Avenue to offer even more prayers for the Millers.
It’s no surprise.
Just about everyone knows the Miller family. Carole is a pharmacist at a local supermarket. Her husband John is a podiatrist. Their other grown children, Cathy and Matt, live out of town and were both on their way to Fort Hood on Thursday.
“You couldn’t ask for a better family,” said Teri Cameron, whose son David grew up with Patrick, the oldest of the Millers’ children. “Patrick and David played high school football and Patrick’s parents were always at the football games. David and Patrick went to religious classes every week at St. Bonaventure Parish.”
Mike Grader, who calls Pat “one of my best friends and a brother,” said he received text-message updates throughout Thursday and the news steadily improved.
“After Pat was shot, he was taken into surgery at the base hospital to be stabilized and he had his second surgery this morning to repair his colon. The medical staff is expecting him to make a full recovery. He’s in the intensive care unit,” said Grader, whose friendship with Miller began in elementary school in the Allegany-Limestone Central School District.
Carole Miller said she first received the news about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Her son’s wife, Ashley, a cardiac nurse, was calling but when the mother answered the call, there was no one at the other end.
“I started making calls and called my son’s cell phone. Someone else answered and I said, ‘Who’s this?’ and the person told me what was happening. I told the people I was with that I had to sit down,” the mother recalled of those first terrifying moments.
But if there was one thing about her son that she and all who know him back home are aware of, it is that the roughly 6-foot, 210-pound, muscular soldier is a fighter who will not quit. He proved that during his four years at St. Bonaventure, just blocks from his family’s two-story brick home.
A standout cadet
Outside the university’s Reilly Center, where the Seneca Battalion of the Reserve Officers Training Corps is headquartered, Lt. Col. Al Zehnder said that though he did not know Miller personally, the former cadet rose to the top of his class.
“His particular class was pretty highly regarded and he was a leader in it,” Zehnder said. “For him to have been promoted three times in 10 years …speaks to his leadership abilities.”
After graduating as a physical education major in 2003, Miller entered active duty in the Army as a second lieutenant.
While in Iraq on his first tour, he served as a medical platoon leader; in his second deployment, he was a military transition team logistics adviser to the Iraqi military. Since August, he has served as a brigade comptroller back at Fort Hood.
Before that, according to his online LinkedIn account, Miller served as the chief financial officer of a medical department with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum near Watertown and also earned a master’s degree in business administration from Syracuse University.
For the cadets in training at St. Bonaventure, Zehnder said the latest events at Fort Hood were addressed during classes Thursday.
“This isn’t the kind of thing that we sign up for in a career with the military. This happening at home is just as devastating as anything that could happen in your hometown. I told the cadets that as unfortunate as this violence is, we can’t let it discourage us from our mission to defend the Constitution and our nation,” Zehnder said.
Fort Hood was the site of the deadliest attack on a domestic military installation back in 2009 when 13 were killed and 30 wounded.
Paul Brawdy, an associate professor at St. Bonaventure and former chairman of the Physical Education Department, described Miller as someone eager to lead.
“You didn’t have to ask twice if you were looking for someone to take a leadership role,” Brawdy said of Miller. “He’s a good guy, a solid, honest guy.”
At the Allegany-Limestone School District, there was plenty of the same praise.
Miller’s younger days
Opening up a yearbook from 1999, the year Miller graduated, Superintendent Karen Geelan recited a list of Miller’s accomplishments:
• Captain of the track team.
• Defensive end and tight end on the football team.
• Yearbook staff member.
“We’re really proud of him,” Geelan said. “He was a leader here with us and it carried on into his adult life.”
What has also impressed Geelan, she added, is the tremendous show of support for Miller and his family from the community. “There’s all kinds of well-wishes going out to them,” the superintendent said.
High school physical education teacher Mike Wilber coached Miller in track and football and like so many others continued to keep up with him long after his graduation and his move to the military.
“We stay in touch on Facebook and when he is in town we try to bump into each other and have a beverage or two,” Wilber said, expressing relief that Miller’s condition is improving.
Everyone seemed to agree that Miller’s passion for staying in shape is now working to his advantage in his time of need.
“He goes to the gym and works out all the time. I think that’s where he first met Ashley, his wife,” said Grader, who attended their wedding on Aug. 18, 2012. It was held at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo because Miller is “a huge Sabres fan.”
Grader added, “I’m glad he is so fit. He’s strong and he’s strong-willed. He’s a fighter. He’s the never-say-die type of guy.”
Yet it was still hard to believe that this hometown hero could end up harmed on American soil after surviving two tours in Iraq.
Pat’s brother, Tim, said he thought someone was pulling a belated, sick April Fool’s joke on him when he found out his brother was shot.
“I was a little freaked out. I thought someone was making it up,” the younger brother said. “I tried calling him, but there was no answer.”
Now he, too, is grateful Pat is strong and on the road to recovery.
As for Grader, he says that he is now looking forward, more than ever, to a weekend in late June when Miller is scheduled to return to Allegany for a previously planned visit with his family and childhood friends.
“When we were teenagers, we were this group of buddies, seven of us. We called ourselves brothers and we had a name for ourselves, ‘the night walkers,’ because we walked around town at night,” Grader said. “Pat was the glue that kept us together then and keeps us together now. Two of our friends are headed to Fort Hood to be by him. I can’t wait to see him in June. I’m hoping he can still make it.”
The community is also rooting for Miller.
On Sunday at St. Bonaventure University’s chapel, Miller’s name will be remembered during the special intentions portion of the Mass.