Book chronicles local Vietnam vet’s journey to healing‘The Sniper Inside the Man’ tells story of Deono Miller.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
It was a lifetime ago that Deono Miller opened his mailbox and read a letter that would change his life forever.
Now a retired farmer living south of Mitchell, Miller, 63, remembers the date: March 26, 1968. Up to then he was a shy, gangling teen who grew up on a farm near Olivet and worked as a mechanic at Vern’s Standard in Menno.
Six months after reading that draft notice, he was slogging through Mekong Delta rice paddies as a point man with a platoon of the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division. During that Vietnam tour, he earned a Silver Star and three Bronze Stars for valorous action under combat conditions — and a lifetime of memories and nightmares.
Sgt. Deono Miller was just 19.
That tour of duty and the decades that followed are chronicled in Miller’s book, “The Sniper Inside the Man, My Vietnam Experience: The War, the Aftermath and the Healing.” The book is the joint effort of Miller and his youngest daughter Katina L. Tucker, who spent two years assembling the stories and testimonials.
In the past, Miller tried to put aside that exciting, terrifying and traumatic year, but the war left behind serious emotional baggage.
The book’s prologue reflects on that time.
“Ending human life is something I never thought I would be good at. It is definitely not something most think about when growing up. When my country needed me, I went without question. War, for anyone, is a very tough thing to endure. When you are 19 years old and you have someone in your scope sight, how do you decide whether or not to pull the trigger?”
Miller’s self-published, 77-page book, now into its second printing, mixes the mundane and occasionally humorous business of soldiering with harrowing accounts of firefights.
It also gives an intensely personal account of the emotional turmoil that dogged Miller after the war, when guilt, which came in contradictory and confounding layers, made life nearly unbearable.
There was guilt for surviving while others did not; guilt for not staying in Vietnam; guilt for not taking a nearly impossible shot that might have saved American POWs; and guilt for taking the lives of others.
It also tells a journey of eventual acceptance, forgiveness and peace. Katina’s motivation for writing the book was more personal.
“I just wanted to know more about why my dad was the way he was — how people are affected by traumatic situations and how they deal with them,” she said. Tucker, 30, works as a registered nurse for the Home Health and Hospice Department at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell. The book grew out of an advanced expository writing course at Dakota Wesleyan University. The course was taught by Joe Ditta, who eventually would become the book’s editor.
“The whole semester was just a big paper, so I focused on post-traumatic stress disorder, talked about my dad, and did a ton of research,” Tucker said.
Her father’s emotional struggles awakened the nurturing part of her personality — “the nurse part.”
“I’m not a mental health nurse, but I try to understand why people are the way they are,” she said.
That was a daunting goal, since neither Miller nor Lonna, his wife of 39 years, knew why he acted as he did after returning from Vietnam.
Tucker and sisters Kari and Kristi remember their dad as loving but unexplainably distant and moody at times, and the girls remember occasional days when they “walked on eggshells” around the house.
“I remember everything,” Miller said during a recent interview with The Daily Republic.
He recalls being blasted by oppressive 120-degree heat and humidity when he stepped off the plane in Long Binh. He remembers the pungent mix of jet fuel and decay that wafted from the aluminum caskets lined up on the runway that were awaiting shipment home.
“We came in dressed all fresh and clean and these other soldiers were walking by. They were all dirty and stared straight ahead. They didn’t even look at us.”
It was the classic “thousand-yard stare” that many veterans recount seeing in men who have experienced war.
“My friends and family told me I had that same look after I returned from Vietnam,” he said.
Miller previously declined an invitation to tell his story as part of The Daily Republic’s 2006 War Stories special section, which honored area veterans. He’d done interviews before, and they just awakened bad memories.
He’s telling his story now in hopes it can help other veterans who struggle with their memories of war.
After several hazardous months of dodging booby traps while walking point for his platoon, Miller took his sergeant’s suggestion and volunteered for sniper training. Ten soldiers out of 50 passed the training and became snipers. Miller, who grew up hunting in South Dakota, was a natural.
The mission of the Ninth Division snipers was simple: Find and kill the enemy.
“We made a big impact,” he recalled. “Our unit registered 370 kills the first month. The enemy placed a 100,000 piaster bounty (about $1,000) on my head.”
Miller still has the “wanted” poster with his photo, printed in Vietnamese, on the wall of the office of his home, displayed beside medals, photos and numerous other pieces of service memorabilia.
Miller said he and sniper partner Howard Kramer grew comfortable sitting in the jungle, often in air heavy with heat and humidity or in the blood-warm monsoon rains that soaked the Mekong Delta.
Technology gave snipers the edge. Miller said he and Kramer used a highly accurate XM21 sniper rifle equipped with a Starlight scope, a specialized night-vision scope that allowed snipers to work after dark in hostile territory
“We weren’t terrified; it wasn’t like that, because we owned the night. They never knew we were there until it was too late.”
Both looked out for each other and both knew they would never allow themselves or their rifles to fall into enemy hands. Each carried a phosphorous grenade, if it came to that.
On a typical mission, helicopters dropped a sniper team at dusk.
“We’d hike in to our assigned area and then wait in the jungle for night to fall,” recalled Miller.
They would then use the Starlight scope to scan the area, move into position, and go to work.
“It was kill or be killed,” Miller said.
Then it was over. After months of missions, the Army pulled the plug on Miller’s unit.
“My sergeant said the Ninth was moving out and to get ready to go home. They said just go back to normal life and forget about the war.”
It was a confusingly mixed message for a young soldier, and easier said than done.
“It came as a surprise and it was kind of a letdown,” he said. “We all thought we were being effective and that we were doing a good job.”
Rather than opting for another tour and building military relationships from scratch, he shipped out.
Miller came home quietly and alone, as many Vietnam vets did, and was denounced as a baby-killer by anti-war war protesters at the Sioux Falls airport.
The nightmares began soon after. Having operated for months at hyper-alert, Miller’s mind and body wouldn’t shut down.
“I couldn’t sleep inside for the first five months. My family set up a tent and I lived in the backyard,” he said.
He would begin shaking if a helicopter passed overhead, and he avoided crowds.
Still, he moved ahead, eventually married and raised a family. He battled his demons with drink at first, and when that didn’t work, he stayed busy.
“He was a perfectionist and a workaholic,” Lonna said.
They saw Oliver Stone’s movie “Platoon” in 1986, which was set during the Vietnam War, and they picked up a booklet on post-traumatic stress disorder upon leaving the theater.
The pamphlet laid out the symptoms of PTSD and the Millers ticked them off, one by one. It explained the flashbacks and terrors of the years.
“It felt good for both of us to finally put a name to my disorder,” he wrote in his memoir.
Healing, however, was years away.
Any help he received in those years was from fellow warriors who understood. He said the “VA,” the Department of Veterans Affairs, was of no help, but he thinks it has since become more responsive to the needs of returning soldiers.
Miller returned twice to Vietnam — once in 1995 and again in 1999 — to confront his demons.
The trips, which are recounted in his book, did more than anything to hasten his healing.
“I was amazed at how generous and forgiving the people were after all we had done there,” he said.
Miller said his book, since its first printing in February, has also been part of his healing and has been accepted by his fellow vets.
He thinks the book could have been longer than 77 pages, but Tucker thinks it’s just right.
“A lot of people want blood and guts,” she said, “but this book isn’t about that. It’s about helping the healing of other vets.”
She hopes to complete her studies and become a nurse practitioner in about two years. Upon graduation, she hopes to work with veterans.
His first book signing was March 5 at Mettler Implement in Menno, and some proceeds were used to benefit the local fire department and American Legion chapter.
Miller has since stayed busy fielding book-related requests. The book is available at Readers Den in Mitchell, on eBay under the keyword “Vietnam Sniper,” and can also be purchased by e-mailing Miller at email@example.com or by calling him directly at (605) 999-8468.
Through it all, he has learned to embrace his past and to find peace and healing in friends and family.
“I am a son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, uncle, cousin and friend,” he wrote at the end of one chapter.
“Another thing I am, is something most are not … a soldier and a sniper. It is something that will be with me until the day I am no longer here, and that is something I’m finally OK with.”