Baraboo author chronicles military helicopter explosion and rescue

September 18, 2018

Don’t ask Andy Miller to sing his ABCs. A tune he once sang to calm his children makes him anxious.

Miller had just crawled from an exploded helicopter on a rocky peak in a remote part of Afghanistan outside his air base. He and his Afghan co-pilot had landed on an explosive device. As he lay waiting for the rescuers he’d called using an emergency radio, Miller tried to soothe himself by singing the alphabet, a technique he’d used with his children.

Today, five years later, the tune brings not calm but angst — and memories of that life-changing day. Miller shares those memories in a new book, “Pamir 62: Heroes Are Forever.”

Miller is now retired, a stay-at-home father caring for three children in his wife Lori’s hometown of Baraboo. In 2013, he was serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, teaching local soldiers how to fly in hopes they’d become instructors themselves.

He was 18 days from finishing his yearlong hitch when he took prospective instructor Massoud Islamkhil on a training flight. He spotted what appeared to be an undisturbed pinnacle and touched down. A fireball rolled through the cockpit as an improvised explosive device rocked their MD-530F.

Despite a broken leg, Miller dragged himself and Islamhkil as far from the helicopter as he could. Islamkil had lost his left arm at the elbow and his left leg at the knee. “Teacher,” he said, “I’m on fire.” Miller applied tourniquets, radioed for help and starting singing his ABCs. He waited for minutes that felt much longer.

“It definitely warmed my heart to see those Mi-17s coming at me,” Miller said. “After that, it’s all kind of a blur.”

He got to talk to his wife that night. She already had been informed he was hurt, but details were scarce.

“You’re never really prepared for it,” she said, noting that reading the book was an emotional experience. “It was hard to read back over that. It was one of the greatest challenges we’ve faced in our lives.”

Miller had suffered severe burns, as well as the broken leg. He was sent to a nearby military hospital before being shipped to Germany and then the U.S. Bedridden at first, Miller took on a physical therapy regimen that helped him progress to a wheelchair and then a cane. He was home for Christmas. Today he walks with a slight limp, but only brings a cane when he knows he has to cover long distances.

“My running days are behind me,” he said.

The book

It was during treatment that Miller started typing notes about his experience on a laptop. His initial goal was to explain the events to his children: Aaron, now 12; and twins Katherine and Fiona, now 8.

“I wanted to put it down so I’d remember,” Miller said. “It was ultimately for my kids.”

Family and friends encouraged him to consider writing a book. Miller decided he was in an ideal position to tell the world about the heroic work military rescuers and caregivers do overseas every day.

“They’re obviously a part of the story,” he said.

“It just made sense to note the things he went through day to day,” Lori Miller said. “It’s hard to put into words, so I’m glad Andy did it.”

Miller began sending emails to his rescuers, seeking details. “I wanted it to be accurate,” he said. Late last summer, he began writing in earnest, in hopes of seeing the book published by the fifth anniversary of the explosion.

He spent a couple hours each week writing, while the kids were at school, and had a first draft ready for his cousin — author Kristy Graves — to review by April.

“She helped smooth it out,” Miller said.

He opted to self-publish through Morris Publishing and received the first copies, titled after his call sign, last month.

“Mission accomplished, right?” he said.

The next step

He’s selling the book for $10 a copy through a Facebook page and personal contacts. Miller is getting to know people in Baraboo — the family moved to Baraboo in June 2017 upon his retirement — especially through his kids’ activities.

Friends in the military also have bought copies. Lori Miller noted that the “military family” created a great support system after the explosion. “There were so many people who just jumped in,” she said.

The author said he considers his rescuers and physical therapists — even those miles removed from combat — the military’s heroes. That’s why he wanted to tell his story.

“It’s a very small portion of what our military men and women do every day,” he said.

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