Army Maj. Patrick W. Miller was shot just two months ago, surviving a bullet that entered two inches from his heart. Friday, all he could do was smile.
There to greet him at Buffalo Niagara International Airport were his family, his boyhood friends, military veterans and people who simply said they wanted to welcome home a local hero.
“As time goes by, time heals all wounds,” the 32-year-old Allegany native said. “But it’s in the back of my mind. In the front of my mind are these people here and where I’m at right now.”
Miller is home for the first time since a fellow soldier shot him in a mass shooting April 2 at Fort Hood in Texas. Friday, he wasn’t thinking about the tragedy. Miller is home for the weekend, and all he can do is smile.
Reporters asked questions like, “How were you able to help others after you were shot?” and “Why did you approach the shooter yourself?” In each case, Miller shifted the conversation toward others.
“I don’t like making it about me,” he said. “(It’s) just about family and being together and appreciating who you’re with. And again, it’s invaluable. You can’t put a price on it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The joy he spoke with changed when he was asked how it feels to be called a hero.
Miller paused before answering.
“Some people I know are missing their limbs. Some people I know can never walk again, OK?” he said. “Some people I know have terminal cancer and are going through chemo and radiation, OK? One of my best friend’s mom just died of cancer a few years ago. That’s an inspiration for me every single day. Jim Kelly is an inspiration to me every single day. Because these people are battling real-life illnesses, and it’s a lot worse than what I had, so that motivates me to get better.”
More than 400 people – family, friends and strangers – sent Miller get-well cards and flowers while he and his wife, Ashley, were in Texas. This weekend, he wants to look as many of them as he can in the eye and say thank you. He’ll have an opportunity to do so at today’s Allegany Community Day Parade, which the town asked Miller to lead. His family and friends are hosting a party for him afterward.
The Allegany High School and St. Bonaventure University graduate served two tours in Iraq.
He was one of 16 soldiers wounded in April’s mass shooting, in which Spc. Ivan Lopez killed three soldiers before taking his own life.
But on Friday Miller revealed a lighthearted and sincere persona, especially when he smiled, that balanced his serious, Army-like poise. Six of his Allegany buddies he grew up with have a similar lightheartedness. Before Miller’s plane landed, the guys broke the anxious tension with their jokes.
“It looks like Angelina Jolie is coming off the plane,” Chris Gagliardo said to Dusty Battone, two of Miller’s closest friends.
Miller’s best friend, Jeff Chouinard, jokingly sabotaged one of Miller’s friends’ television interview. He kissed him on the cheek just as the reporter asked what it’s going to be like to have Miller back. But Chouinard was also tearful while he waited to see Miller. When he got to the airport, he walked straight to Miller’s father, John, who was sitting at the bar in the airport’s waiting area.
Chouinard was already crying before he embraced John Miller.
“Pat’s not a friend, he’s a brother,” said Chouinard, who hadn’t seen Miller since Christmas. Since they were 4, he and Miller played football, baseball, were Boy Scouts and went to school together. “I had no idea if I was going to see my best friend again,” he said. “It doesn’t get more exciting than this.”
Knowing that Miller is expected to make a full recovery, Chouinard said he wants to go out, have fun and “act like we are kids again.” But he also wants to talk to Miller about what his friend is going through. The two talk on the phone every day, and Chouinard said the have been there for each other through hard times.
The soldier’s parents, John and Carole, were most excited to hug him when he arrived. They visited him in Texas after he was shot, but Friday was the first time they had him home. And something about that made the father cry.
“A peace has come about us, hasn’t it, Carole?” John said to his wife.
Miller has simple plans for the weekend: be around his loved ones. When he got off the plane, the first person he hugged was his grandmother. After a long hug, he whispered in her ear: “Thank you.”
This weekend, that’s all he wants to do – say thank you to the community, enjoy being around people he hasn’t seen in years at the Allegany parade and, of course, eat his dad’s homemade chowder.
“When it’s almost taken from you, you learn to appreciate everything and everyone, every minute of every day,” Miller said. “To be able to have those embraces that we saw back there, I want it to be like that every day as long as I’m around.”