The image was striking.
Gen. Scott Miller, less than three years removed from command of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, took the flag from Gen. John W. Nicholson in a change of command ceremony in Kabul last weekend.
But it wasn’t just any change of command.
Miller, as seasoned and lethal as any officer in the U.S. Army, took charge of the 17-year war in Afghanistan. It’s now his fight — and it is one hell of a fight that just won’t seem to end.
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In his brief remarks, Miller said, “the world recognizes that Afghanistan can’t be a safe haven for terrorists. The world recognizes that we cannot fail.” He said the conflict is still “a tough fight” but that “what we do here will be vital to both Afghanistan and the world,” according to a report in the Washington Post.
Scott Miller doesn’t back away from tough fights. The 57-year-old U.S. Military Academy graduate seems to relish them.
And his reputation is such. There is a story from Miller’s time at Fort Benning that illustrates that.
Former President George W. Bush was speaking in Columbus in 2015. Before the president’s speech there was a formal receiving line where invited guests could have their picture taken with Bush. Miller was working his way up the line toward the former commander in chief.
As Miller approached Bush, the president reached out to one of his handlers that night and made a quick, but sharp comment, according to someone who witnessed it.
“That’s a badass there,” Bush said as he looked at Miller.
Bush, who was connected to the military in a real way during his eight years in office, should know an American “badass” when he sees one.
Miller commanded Delta Force, the Army’s elite and secretive counter-terrorism unit. In October 1993 as captain, he was the Delta ground commander during the Battle of Mogadishu, the subject of a book and movie entitled “Black Hawk Down.” He has served combat tours in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
To understand Miller, it helps to understand his tenure at Fort Benning. He was an unlikely commander for the Maneuver Center of Excellence because much of his career had been spent in the shadowy Special Operations community.
On July 11, 2014, when the Army gave Miller the keys to the most traditional of posts, it was not lost on him that a career special operator was now in charge of a major training post that is essential to the Army’s well-being.
“I have been joking about that — ‘Oh the Special Ops guy is coming to Fort Benning,’” Miller said prior to the change of command ceremony. “I am a believer in the basics. What makes special operations strong is they master the basics. When you come back to Fort Benning, what do we do here? We go after the basics.”
On March 18, 2016, Miller turned those keys over to then Brig. Gen. Eric J. Wesley. In the 21 months that Miller commanded Fort Benning, he was dealing with one issue on top of another, many of those related to the gender-integration of Ranger School. I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat for a lot of that. The Ledger-Enquirer, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor got embeds throughout the process as the first women went through the Army’s toughest leadership training school.
There was a lot of opposition within the ranks and from retired Rangers.
Miller dealt with that opposition head-on as Capt. Kristen Griest and then-1st Lt. Shaye Haver became the first women to earn the Ranger tab in August 2015. The active-duty and retired soldiers who were critical of the process and just the thought of women earning the Ranger tab stopped short when asked if they were critical of Miller. They would not go there. They would not criticize Miller. They made others the fall guys and stopped short of going after the two-star commander who was in charge.
I am thoroughly convinced that is why Scott Miller had the keys to Fort Benning during the early days of gender integration. The Army wanted the man who was above reproach among the Warrior Class.
One interview session with Miller stands out and shows his leadership style. It was in October 2015 and Maj. Lisa Jaster had just become the third woman to earn the Ranger tab. Miller had a media roundtable on the fourth floor of McGinnis-Wickam Hall. There was not much media there, mainly myself and Susan Keating, a People magazine correspondent who had reported that multiple unnamed sources have told her there was unfair assistance given to the women.
Miller was flanked by the officers and enlisted personnel who had run the gender integration of Ranger School..
“There are some people who obviously have some concerns,” Miller said. “I can’t address them if they are opaque. These guys can’t address them or fix them if they are opaque.”
The most telling moment came more than 50 minutes into an interview that lasted almost an hour and a half. Miller, who received the Bronze Star for Valor in the Battle of Mogadishu, was asked if his credibility had been damaged by the allegations.
“I have thick skin and I am a public figure, but I will tell you who doesn’t deserve this is these guys,” he said, pointing to the Ranger instructors. “They don’t deserve this. ... I keep telling everybody I will put my name on anything I say or do. If they are not willing to put their name on it or come back to me. ...”
I will never forget Miller’s cold, steely stare at that very moment.
You know what? They never put their name on it.
A U.S. congressman, Republican Steve Russell of Oklahoma, questioned the process and asked the Army for Ranger School records involving gender integration. Russell, a former infantry battalion commander who was Ranger qualified, pushed for several months for the records. At one point, Miller met with him in Washington. The congressman’s quest ended quietly.
One of the things that became clear, was to question that process was to question Scott Miller’s integrity. Even a congressman with an Army background was going to stop short of questioning Miller’s integrity.
As the uproar over gender integration began to die down in late 2015, I was working on story about the process. Griest and Haver, who had not done media interviews outside one’s organized by the Army, agreed to talk. Miller got word it was happening.
I was covering an event at the clubhouse of the Fort Benning golf course. I was near the middle of the room when Miller came through the front door. He saw me and march toward me with purpose.
“You are not about to ruin the career of a promising captain?” he asked.
I assured him I was going to report it accurately and was not in this to ruin anyone’s career. But that I day, I got a taste of what it was like to be on the receiving end of Miller’s disdain. It was an uncomfortable place.
A few months later, when Miller left Fort Benning, he went back into the shadows, leading the Joint Special Operations Command. Under Miller’s direction were the most elite units in the U.S. military.
As he was leaving Benning in March of 2016, Congress had still not awarded Miller the third star that went with the Joint Special Operations Command. He showed up for the change of command ceremony at Fort Benning with his sedan packed.
I remember asking him where he was heading to wait out the limbo.
“I don’t know yet, either Fort Bragg or spring training,” he said.
He ended up going to Fort Bragg.
That’s what Scott Miller does, he goes where his nation sends him.