Crystal Miller was in the classroom where she worked as a third-grade teacher assistant at Millers Creek Elementary on April 15, 2005, when she learned from her sergeant, Rita Colbert, that she was being deployed to Iraq.
Miller had been a member of the N.C. National Guard for about eight years when she and other members of North Wilkesboro-based Co. C of the 505th Engineer Battalion left for what ended up being a 1½-year deployment.
She had four young children at home.
Miller described the challenges of this experience and what she learned when she was guest speaker at the annual Veterans Day program on the Wilkes County Courthouse lawn Sunday.
“I came to understand that we cannot judge each other in this society, because when we do, every minute that we served (in Iraq) was for nothing,” she said.
“We have freedom of expression because of wars fought by men and women not afraid to meet the challenge,” she told the crowd of about 200 people gathered.
Miller said Americans should be able to stand up and speak up for what they believe in without dividing into factions that can’t get along. She said they need to treat people as they would like to be treated.
She also said that her experiences in Iraq and other third world countries taught her to not be consumed by the desire for material possessions.
“I did have some idea that it was going to happen, but that day sent me home in shock because I had four children at home at the time,” said Miller about her initial reaction to learning that she was being deployed.
She went on active duty before most of the rest of the unit to help prepare everything for deployment.
“I accepted that fate and I did my duty. At that moment, I remembered taking that oath and saying that if I was ever called, that I would do what was asked of me. When I joined I took that very seriously.”
Miller added, “I did my duty and prepared but never thought I would start pulling away from my children so quickly or that I would find myself so cold so fast. I only let my oldest son come to my departure because I thought the rest of them couldn’t handle it, but it wasn’t them, it was me. I couldn’t bear that goodbye.”
Miller said she had never received combat training and was poorly prepared for what was to come.
She said she experienced depression upon arriving in Iraq, but that eased as she began her work on her assignments. Miller operated equipment for working on roads and constructing buildings. It was dangerous work, especially due to improvised explosive devices in the roads.
After several months in Iraq, Miller returned to Wilkes for a visit. She said this possibly was a mistake because the departure from her children left her crying all the way back to Iraq. “But I told my platoon leader that I would make sure that never happened again.”
Miller said that when she returned home for good, she had to choose between being a soldier and a mother. “And I loved being a soldier. I was a proud soldier…. If there was something that needed to be done, I would make it happen.”
Miller said the readjustment upon returning home was very hard, as it has always has been for returning soldiers.
She said basic training after joining the Guard taught her a valuable lesson, which is that “you get out of a thing what you expect to get out of it.” Miller said she applied that lesson to her work and other aspects of her life.
Her first annual training was three weeks spent in the jungles of Ecuador. She also went with the Guard to the Republic of Moldova in eastern Europe to help build a medical facility after the Soviet Union fell and nine years of Civil War.
Miller cited the deep hurt of seeing about 200 2-year-olds lined up every day waiting for bowls of soup in Moldovia.
She said boys in the orphanage who didn’t show promise in school were sent to the Moldovan Army at age 15 to serve until they were 19.
“The girls at age 16 were given a bus ticket to the town that was listed on their birth certificate or their intake papers, not knowing if they had family there or not. There was always a group of corrupt government officials there waiting to sell them into the human trafficking trade.”
Miller said she also was in the Marshall Islands, where she met people who were sent there after being sent to camps in California when they were displaced during World War II. The land they were returned to had been raped of its resources.
Miller said she’ll remember the mound of disposable diapers she saw on the backside of an island the remainder of her life. Americans send disposable diapers to third world countries, she said, not realizing that they don’t have trash disposal systems.
“Those diapers would be slowly pulled into the sea, a little at a time.”
Miller has a bachelor’s degree in human services from Gardner-Webb University and a master’s degree in adult education from East Carolina University, as well as a certificate of instruction for junior, technical and community colleges.
She has been employed by the N.C. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs since 2012, starting as a veterans service officer, a training officer and the state training coordinator. She was a regional manager and now is field operations manager of the division.
Wilkes Veterans Service Officer Allison Huffman introduced Miller and said she was her training officer.