Afternoons like Wednesday present Brian Miller with an opportunity to enjoy the company of teammates again.
This was far from the battlefields of Iraq — both in appearance and in general mood — where he served two tours of duty as an Army cavalry scout in 2008 and 2009. Blue water, cool temperatures and a healthy breeze accompanied the warm sunshine at Fort Adams, as the MetLife Combat Wounded and Injured Veterans Regatta convened just a stone’s throw from the Volvo Ocean Race village on shore.
Miller was one of 14 veterans to take part, a roster that spanned all four branches of the military. On-board reporters from each of the Volvo race’s seven teams served on crews of the J/22 sloops that twisted and turned through the mild chop.
“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of camaraderie, competition,” Miller said. “There were some nice winds out there. There were some good knots going on. We got a couple baths.
”There were times over the last six years when Miller was uncertain whether he would even have the chance to stand on the docks by Narragansett Bay. The Pennsylvania native’s left leg was shattered by a roadside bomb on Easter Sunday in 2009. The eight-wheeled armored Stryker he was riding in was destroyed by an explosively formed penetrator. Miller survived but suffered through 14 surgeries in an attempt to save the leg, which was eventually amputated above the knee some two years later.
“You train all your life to do something, and all of a sudden in a split second it’s gone,” Miller said. “What are you going to do with your life now?”Facing what he felt was a grim new reality, Miller nearly became a different kind of statistic — one of the 22 veterans in the United States who commit suicide on a daily basis.
“You don’t ever feel like you fit in,” Miller said. “You don’t feel like a whole person anymore. Anybody that I’ve known that’s gone through a traumatic injury, it always puts you in a really bad mindset.”
It wasn’t until some friends intervened that Miller’s spirits started to brighten. They suggested he participate in the Warrior Games, a competition created in 2010 and held annually at United States Olympic headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. Miller was a member of a sitting-volleyball team, and the feeling of being back among his peers started to overtake his despair.
“When a bunch of us get together it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re not the only one that’s going through this,’” Miller said. “It’s for anybody who’s been through a traumatic injury. It’s just very important to get off the couch.”
Sailing speaks to Miller like few other sports. He plans to continue participating in similar events through the Wounded Veterans Retreat Program, which often partners with US Sailing.
“I always come back to sailing because of the teamwork,” Miller said. “It just brings it back to the Army. As a unit with your brothers, you’re stronger.”
Miller’s mere participation in the regatta — and that of his fellow veterans — is a testament to their toughness, both mental and physical. It wasn’t lost on Volvo crew members like Amory Ross, who serves as the on-board reporter for Team Alvimedica.
“There were a few races where the [on-board reporters] drove and there were a few races where the veterans were driving,” Ross said. “In both cases I think the veterans were the ones calling the shots and making a lot of the sailing happen.”
Ross, a Rhode Island native, has an affinity for military personnel that dates back two generations. His grandfather, the late Dr. Edwin Henrie, served as a Naval surgeon from 1963 to 1975, and spent his next 15 years in private practice at Newport’s Aquidneck Medical Center. Some of Ross’ earliest childhood memories involve Henrie, fishing rods and quick jaunts to Prudence Island.“It’s our job in so many ways to share sailing,” Ross said. “It’s something that we all take very seriously and clearly have a lot of passion for. It’s why we’re on board and it’s what we love about our jobs.“To share that with a group of veterans who have given so much was a real privilege and an honor. I was really excited to be there. I’ve been looking forward to today for a while now and it was a lot of fun.”