In October 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, U.S. and British military forces were beginning a series of airstrikes on Afghanistan. They were there because the Islamic extremist Taliban had refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida extremist leader who orchestrated the attacks that took almost 3,000 lives and left twice that many people wounded.
In mid-November, weeks after the airstrikes began, the Taliban would abandon the Afghan city of Kabul. In December, another Taliban stronghold, the city of Kandahar, would fall.
Among the U.S. military personnel in and around Afghanistan during those weeks was Capt. Mark W. Miller, a navigator aboard one of the Air Force’s versatile workhorse C-130 aircraft. Assigned to the 8th Special Operations Squadron based at Hurlburt Field, on Nov. 2, 2001, Miller found himself guiding two C-130s as part of an effort to rescue 11 Americans whose helicopter had crashed in the mountains of Afghanistan.
According to an official account, Miller’s “precise time control at a critical phase of flight culminated in a flawless aerial refueling of a fuel-critical helicopter, ensuring the safety of the crews and guaranteeing mission success. ... without his direction, the helicopter executing the rescue would have been forced to abort the mission and land behind enemy lines.”
That account is from the citation accompanying the Distinguished Flying Cross presented to Miller in July 2003. The medal recognizes members of the U.S. armed services who demonstrate “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight.”
The sensitivity of the November 2001 mission is reflected in the citation issued to Miller, which notes only that his exploits occurred “at a classified location.” Other hints about the circumstances of the mission are found in the citation’s mentions of Miller “overcoming foul weather and degraded aircraft equipment in mountainous terrain deep inside enemy territory.”
Miller’s heroics that day might have been lost to time if not for the purchase some months ago of the contents of a storage locker in Pensacola, and the ongoing efforts of David Blair, a Navy veteran who lives in Blountstown, a small town west of Tallahassee.
Blair’s son, Terry, who buys the contents of storage lockers abandoned by their owners, learned last year that a friend had purchased a locker containing a framed display including Miller’s medal, his citation and a certificate signed by then-commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, Gen. Hal M. Hornburg.
Terry Blair and his friend turned the display over to David Blair, thinking that his military experience might give him some insight in how to find Miller, Blair explained. Blair has been retired for some time after spending 24 years in the Navy.
Thus far, though, the effort to get the Distinguished Flying Cross back to Miller has been a frustrating experience for Blair, who said he has been on the telephone and the Internet intermittently since July of last year. In that time, Blair said he has contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the secretary of the Air Force and Hurlburt Field, all to no avail.
Blair said Hurlburt Field personnel have told him they don’t have any records of Miller’s service. More frustrating for Blair is that both Nelson’s office and the secretary of the Air Force’s office have told him that they can’t really help track down Miller unless they have his Social Security number.
"I can’t get anywhere because I don’t have his Social Security number,” Blair said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Calls by the Northwest Florida Daily News on Wednesday to Hurlburt Field’s Public Affairs office, Nelson’s office and the Air Force Public Affairs office did not produce any immediate information. However, all three offices did indicate they would check on any information they had on Miller and on Blair’s search for him.
After being contacted Wednesday by the Daily News, Nelson’s Washington, D.C., office was working to get in touch with Blair.
An Air Force spokesman could not say specifically Wednesday how the Air Force might be able to work to track down Miller, but he did say that the service has dealt with “a number of instances similar to this” and is committed to ensuring that misplaced or lost medals are returned to legitimate recipients.
On another front, independent efforts by the Daily News to find Miller have thus far been unsuccessful.
In the meantime, Blair said he is willing to hear from anyone who may have information about Miller’s whereabouts. He can be reached by telephone at 850-573-4247 or by email at [email protected].
This citation, accompanying the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded more than 14 years ago to then-Capt. Mark W. Miller of the 8th Special Operations Squadron, details the critical role his navigation played in the rescue of 11 Americans in Afghanistan:
Captain Mark W. Miller distinguished himself by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as MC-130E Combat Talon Navigator, 8th Special Operations Squadron (Deployed) at a classified location on 2 November 2001. On that date, Captain Miller’s exemplary knowledge and outstanding airmanship, displayed under extremely hazardous conditions, culminated in the successful rescue of 11 Americans from the mountains of Afghanistan following the crash of their helicopter. During the rescue, Captain Miller’s precise time control at a critical phase of flight culminated in a flawless aerial refueling of a fuel-critical helicopter, ensuring the safety of the crews and guaranteeing mission success. Orbiting within 20 miles of the crash site, Captain Miller directed his formation of Talons to an on-time rendezvous with the rescue helicopter at 11,500 feet mean sea level while overcoming foul weather and degraded aircraft equipment in mountainous terrain deep inside enemy territory. His precision navigation was critical to the two Talons reaching the refueling point on time; without his direction, the helicopter executing the rescue would have been forced to abort the mission and land behind enemy lines. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by Captain Miller reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.