L/CPL Robert J. Slattery, Marine Corps League Det #206, NEWSLETTER, Jul 2019 - 15
Healing Through Art: Wounded Combat Veteran from Whippany
Donates Art to Nationwide Military Heroes

By new_view_media on  June 4, 2019 
By Christine Graf

Tom Miller’s draft notice arrived in his mailbox in August 1963. That same day, the 22-year-old went to his local recruiting office in Milwaukee and joined the Marines. At that time, 11,000 U.S. military advisors were stationed in Vietnam. Yet few Americans were aware that a war was looming.

In March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson began deploying troops to Vietnam. Miller, a member of the 2nd Battalion, 7thMarines, landed in Qui Nhon just a few months later. He was a radio operator in a light infantry unit.  The radio he carried on his back was heavy, and it had a long antennae that protruded high into the air. It made him easy for the enemy to spot.

I had that big arrow that was sticking up. It was saying, ‘Shoot at this guy,’” he said with a laugh. “But it didn’t really matter. Everybody had a target on their back over there.

In truth, radio operators had one of the shortest life expectancies during the war. By killing a radio operator, the Viet Cong were able to impede a unit’s abilityto communicate with headquarters and call for air support.

Enemy soldiers were also aware of the fact that a unit’s radio operator followed closely behind its officer in charge. When a radio operator was showered with a hail of gunfire, there was a good chance the bullets would take out both the radio operator and the officer in charge. As a result, the Viet Cong were always on the lookout for radio antennae.

When they weren’t being fired at, Miller and the other men in his unit spent many hours trudging through rice  paddies (flooded fields used to cultivate rice). This caused many of them to develop immersion foot syndrome, commonly known as trench foot.

It causes your feet to crack and blister and bleed, and you end up having to be transported. We lost a lot of our group because of that,” said Miller.

There were nights when they slept in dirty water that was five inches deep. Miller remembers frequently being “soaked to the bones.” He also recalls being hot—very hot. In Vietnam, temperatures can hover ne ar 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

In December 1965—monsoon season–Miller’s battalion took part in Operation Harvest Moon, the war’s second large-scale Marine Corps engagement. The operation targeted one of the strongest regiments of the Viet Cong Army.

On the tenth day of the eleven-day operation, Miller’s battalion was caught in an ambush. He and three other Marines took cover in a house located in an open marketplace. The Viet Cong fired a shell into the house, and the explosion knocked two of the Marines unconscious. Miller was knocked to his knees and experienced sharp pain throughout his body. The vision in his right eye blurred and then went dark.

After the dust cleared, he rushed to the side of his radio partner, Jack Swender. Swender had been hit in the jugular by a piece of shrapnel. Miller held him in his arms as he bled to death. He described it as the saddest day of his life.

Donald Carlin, Miller’s bunkmate and fellow radio operator, also died that day in a separate incident. He was one of 45 Marines killed during Operation Harvest Moon.

He was really a nice kid,” said Miller. “He had just had a baby before they shipped out, and he was killed. War is not a nice thing.

There were also 90 South Vietnamese and at least 400 Viet Cong soldiers killed during the operation. Miller was among the more than 200 Marines that were injured. As a result, his tour in Vietnam was over.

I lost my right eye. I got shrapnel where I didn’t have a flak jacket. In other words, my butt, my leg, my arms. A piece bounced off my helmet and bounced into my eye,” he said. “It ripped up my leg pretty good. Otherwise it was a lot of little pock holes. You can still see a couple little scars here and there.

After being discharged, he returned to Wisconsin and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree in fine arts. He married and settled with his wife on a farm where they raised Arabian horses and Doberman pinchers. At the time, Miller worked as a draftsman for his local county. He and his wife had one child nd adopted another.

Continued on next page