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Fort Hood hero: ‘You don’t have time to think. It’s all fight or flight, and you react’

KILLEEN, Texas – Army Maj. Patrick W. Miller stared into the blank eyes of death.

A .45-caliber bullet, shot from just feet away, tore into him 2 inches below his heart. It ripped across his colon, smashed through a rib and embedded in his back.

After surviving two tours of duty in Iraq, dying at home at the hands of a fellow soldier was not the way he wanted to go.

And it wasn’t.

The Allegany native survived the shooting at Fort Hood on April 2 after a dramatic crawl out a window to safety.

Three other soldiers were not as lucky, after Spc. Ivan Lopez went on a shooting spree at the base in central Texas. The rampage started in the 49th Transportation Battalion Headquarters, where he killed a soldier and wounded 10 others. He drove his vehicle to the motor pool building, where he fatally shot another soldier and wounded two. As he drove, he shot at soldiers outside, wounding some more.

Then he got to the Medical Brigade Building, where Miller worked as comptroller of the First Medical Brigade.

Lopez walked into the building and shot a guard to death at the front desk.

“I can’t really explain it,” Miller, 32, said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “You knew it was happening. You knew what gunshots sound like. You know it’s in the building, but it’s surreal.”

So Miller did what he has done all his life; he ran toward the trouble.

Miller returns to Western New York today to a hero’s welcome. After he touches down at Buffalo Niagara International Airport, he will be escorted to his hometown of Allegany by the Patriot Guard motorcycle riders. And Saturday, he will be the grand marshal for Allegany’s Old Home Week.

As he prepared for his trip home from Texas and ahead of his new assignment at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., he shared his story with The News.

‘Your mind is racing’

Miller came upon the gunman, who shot him point-blank in the abdomen.

“At the time, you don’t have time to think. It’s all ‘fight or flight,’ and you react,” he said.

Miller doesn’t remember having pain right away.

“My first thought was this guy can’t get in this office,” he said, “because it would be a lot worse. That was just my first thought – get them all away.”

Miller secured the office. Holding his side with one hand, he used his other hand to call 911 on his cellphone.

He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the last person Lopez wounded before he was confronted by a Military Police officer and fatally shot himself.

Miller moved to the floor in his office, where other soldiers hiding from the gunman put pressure on his wound to slow the bleeding. As the minutes ticked by, he started getting nervous. Attending to a gunshot to the gut is not like putting a tourniquet on an arm.

“When you get hit in the stomach, you have no idea what’s going on. Your mind is racing,” he recalled. “People are crying; I’m trying to calm them down.”

Then he took stock of his situation: “OK, I’m laying there. After a while, I’m like, you know what, I’m not coughing or spitting up any blood, I can control my breathing, I’m cognizant of the situation, I know what’s going on, but I was losing some blood.”

Forty-five minutes had passed since Miller was shot, and he and the others in the office were still sheltering in place as they had been trained. They didn’t know if the shooter was still out there. But Miller knew he needed to get to a hospital. He stood up, got to a window, crawled through it, and walked to an ambulance.

“That’s when it started to hurt,” he said.

Ashley Miller, the major’s wife of nearly two years, was at home that afternoon, working on her computer, oblivious to what was happening several miles away. She had received a text message from her husband shortly before 4:30 p.m., asking whether she wanted to go to a movie that night.

A short time later, she got a message from one of her husband’s co-workers coming from his phone.

“I’m calling back, no one’s answering, calling back – which is very unlike Patrick; he always answers his phone,’ she said. “So I’m like, ‘This is just weird.’ ”

Finally, someone answered. “Your husband’s been shot,” said the voice on the other end.

Ashley Miller got off the phone and called her sister in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was hysterical, desperately willing her shaking fingers to make the call.

She turned the television on and saw the “Breaking News” crawl at the bottom of the screen: “Three dead in Fort Hood shooting.”

“My sister said she’ll never forget it, she’ll never forget how I called her and what I sounded like,” Ashley Miller said. “I was just hysterical, like screaming hysterical; I didn’t know what to do – I did not know what to do.”

A registered nurse in the emergency department at a local hospital, she decided to go there to see if she could figure out where her husband had been taken. Co-workers there found out he was taken to Carl L. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, and a friend who had worked there took her to the post.

Meanwhile, in the Cattaraugus County Village of Allegany, it was an hour later than the Central Time in Texas, and Patrick Miller’s mother, Carole, had gone to a Knights of Columbus dinner.

She saw on her phone that there had been a shooting at Fort Hood, but she knew that more than 40,000 soldiers are stationed there, and didn’t think anything of it. Then she got a call from Ashley during dinner, but didn’t want to be impolite, so she didn’t answer it.

“And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Ashley never calls. She’ll text,’ ” Carole Miller said.

She tried calling and texting her but got no answer.

She texted Patrick, and he didn’t respond, so she called, and a woman answered.

“I said ‘Ah, this is Carole Miller, Pat’s mom,’ ” she recalled. “And she said, ‘He was shot but he’s …’ – she didn’t say he was all right – ‘but he walked to the ambulance.’ ”

Carole Miller hurried home, where her husband, John, had seen the TV news and also tried calling and texting his son with no response. He got more worried when he saw the First Medical Brigade building on TV.

“She walked in the door, I said, ‘Pat’s been shot, hasn’t’ he?’ Because she’s coming home early, and then, when I saw her face, I for sure knew,” he said.

They told their son Tim, 21, who lives at their home, and talked with their daughter, Cathy, who lives in Jefferson City, Mo., and another son Matt, who is a special-education teacher in Kansas City, Mo. Matt had been taking a nap when his girlfriend, Juneal, woke him up. Cathy and Matt decided to go see their brother that night.

“Within about 3½ hours, 4 hours, we’re already on our way down to Texas,” he said. “We drove about 100, 105, the whole way down there, on the I-35. That’s what’s good about the Midwest; there’s not a whole lot of hills and turns.”

Not like where the Millers grew up in a brick house on a small subdivision on a hill in Allegany, nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains along the Allegheny River.

That was where Patrick, the oldest sibling, loved playing football. He played full contact with Matt, who is 4 years younger. “We loved to play hockey in the basement,” Matt Miller said, adding, “He’d make me be the goalie.”

Patrick rode his bicycle to Allegany Elementary School a few blocks from his house, and one time recruited the neighborhood kids to re-enact scenes from the movie “Grease.”

“He always loved to sing and he always loved music,” John Miller recalled about his son Patrick. “When he was in Iraq, he and others formed a band.”

The day Patrick went for his interview for a scholarship into St. Bonaventure University’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he bleached his hair blondish white, something his family still laughs about. Patrick Miller rolled his eyes when that came up, then he admitted with a smile that, yes, he had “Billy Idol-ed” his hair.

When he was at Allegany-Limestone High School, he said, “I was the preppy jock. Ask me about the Army, I was ‘no.’ I got my earring, my hair,” he said, joking, “I’m too pretty to go in the Army.”

He got the scholarship and graduated from St. Bonaventure with a degree in physical education in 2003, but it was his Army commission that then was most important to him. The Army sent him to Syracuse University, where he completed a dual master’s business program in 2009. That’s where he met his wife, a native of Cazenovia in Central New York.

After being shot, Miller would undergo two surgeries in the next 24 hours and be intubated to help him breathe. Surgeons removed the bullet about a week after his first two surgeries.

The Millers’ life together was changed that day in April. As a nurse, Ashley Miller was not fazed by his medical condition, but there were times she was overwhelmed knowing the enormity of what her husband had endured.

The first night in the hospital, in between surgeries when he couldn’t talk, was one of the longest in her life. Miller was intubated, his belly was left open because another surgery was planned, and he was mostly unconscious.

Over and over she prayed the first verse of the 27th Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Ashley Miller knew that her husband could hear although he was not conscious, and she knew that he is a die-hard Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. So in the middle of that first night, she went to the WGR Sports Radio audio vault online, and played sports shows for him.

Patrick Miller wears a bracelet with the name of one of his friends, Jeremy Heines, engraved. Heines was killed in action in Iraq on June 26, 2004.

People such as Heines are heroes, Miller believes, not him.

“The people I consider heroes are the people who never make it home. It’s the people who make the ultimate sacrifice and never get to return home to their wives or their children or their friends and they don’t get the welcome-home ceremony, and they don’t get the parade, and they don’t get all that,” Miller said. “Those are who I consider heroes – real heroes. That can’t be replicated and duplicated. I was just doing my job and reacting and trying to save lives.”

But he has always been a hero to his family.

“Frankly, what he did was what he was supposed to do,” his father said. “What he did was what he was trained to do, and it displayed tremendous situational awareness and training, which is what the Army gives its soldiers.

“Is it heroism? Sure, by us, it’s heroism. That’s what soldiers do every day – they’re all heroes.”

There are a lot of folks around Allegany who are proud of Patrick Miller, including his grandparents, Pauline and Andrew Miller. Andrew Miller, 89, flew 35 missions as a ball turret gunner in a B-17 bomber during World War II.

Some of Miller’s tenacity may have come from his father, a podiatrist, and mother, a pharmacist with multiple sclerosis who raised four children, including one with Asperger’s syndrome.

Counting the blessings

The hardest part for Miller is knowing how worried his family was, and it’s difficult for him to look over the frantic texts and phone messages they left for him. “I don’t like when people worry about me. I like to take care of other people,” he said. “I want to make sure and protect other people, and when people worried about me, that was tough.”

He credits his wife for being “stronger than I’ll ever be.” Ashley filled in for her husband at the memorial service for the victims, where she and her father met President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Miller will be going to Fort Leavenworth next month. He has been accepted into the Command and General Staff College for a 10-month graduate-level course of study. But before that, he has a special homecoming this weekend.

As the Millers count their blessings, Patrick Miller is looking forward to this weekend, when he will get together with many friends and family members he hasn’t seen since he and Ashley were married. They’ll have some clams and enjoy a beer, and he’ll have fun being grand marshal at he Old Home Week parade in Allegany on Saturday.

“That’s where you see the good in people – from tragedy,” Patrick Miller said. “It’s amazing. Humanity and the human spirit are an amazing thing. And I believe in good – it really shined through.”