Updated: Jun 13, 2019
Sergeant First Class Jason Tinelle put his troops back on 100% alert. Sergeant Derrick Miller had pulled a trigger and an enemy insurgent lay dead within friendly lines. Miller immediately reported the shooting. It was September 26, 2010.
When asked, Tinelle deployed to Afghanistan and was bumped up from Platoon Sergeant to Platoon Leader. (There was a shortage of Lieutenants.) He was 10 months in command of the platoon. It was his fourth combat tour (Miller’s third) and his second tour of Afghanistan after the Gulf War and Bosnia. He had served as his infantry company’s First Sergeant during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2005. He had been an Infantryman for 20 years.
It would soon be dark and Tinelle believed an enemy attack was imminent. He would soon come to believe Miller’s actions had saved many American lives.
He was correct on both counts.
A battalion of the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment was conducting Operation Iron Locust II in the next valley over. The platoon’s mission was to provide security for the battalion’s 81-millimeter mortars. They were to protect themselves in line with the Rules of Engagement. The mission had begun two days earlier. The MP platoon patrolling the adjacent main supply route (MSR) had linked up with them. A squad of Afghanistan National Army (ANA) was also with them; whose side they were on remains an open question.
Prior to the mission, military intelligence stated the enemy would likely infiltrate their perimeter.
The platoon, mortar team, ANA, and MPs occupied a high point around a large school building during the evening of the 25th. The mortar team advised Tinelle that the two nearby villages to their “10 and 12 o’clock” harbored Taliban.
Less than an hour before the attack, Tinelle was inside his command truck utilizing its equipment to track the battalion’s and supporting unit’s movements.
A subordinate alerted Miller to Atta wandering around inside the platoon’s perimeter and conversing with the ANA – it was their country, he could do that, and those were the rules.
That soldier and another NCO confirmed that Atta was the same guy found driving a truck at their MSR checkpoint the day before. In the back were four likely Taliban, all armed with AK-47s, ammunition, and a laptop. SGT Miller’s civilian job was as an armed Department of Defense Security Guard at Fort Detrick, Maryland. “99% of [the] job” at that highly secured base was checking identifications. Miller thought theirs looked “either homemade or extremely sketchy” and recommended they all be detained. The NCO in charge of the checkpoint decided they had the proper paperwork and released them.
Atta drove off directly towards the valley where the battalion was conducting combat operations. Now – nearing sundown on the 26th – Atta Mohammed was within the platoon’s security perimeter claiming he was there to fix the electricity. But he had no tools.
SGT Miller suspected Atta was an enemy insurgent scouting the platoon’s positions for targets.
He informed the Platoon Sergeant who approved further questioning. Miller took Atta into the latrine, accompanied by one soldier and the interpreter, drew a 9mm Beretta pistol, and again asked what Atta was doing there. Atta replied he was there to fix some plumbing. Caught in a lie, Atta grabbed SGT Miller’s pistol. Miller “pushed through his grip” and shot him in self-defense.
The ensuing commotion outside the command truck caused SFC Tinelle to order a full alert. He knew SGT Miller to be a top soldier. Yet SOP required that the incident be investigated. He asked the MPs to take Miller into custody; he was secured in one of their vehicles.
The squad of outraged and threatening ANA then went and hid behind the latrine. Obviously, Atta was not there as an electrician and plumber just “breaking bread and drinking tea together” with the ANA as the prosecution later contended; he came to warn them.
Just after dark, the Taliban executed a coordinated, horseshoe-shaped attack with RPGs and machineguns. They concentrated their assault-by-fire on the platoon’s two command trucks. The Taliban had scouted their positions. The attack was not in reprisal by villagers for Atta’s “murder.” It would have taken hours to sneak into position undetected during daylight.
They struck back at the enemy with everything they had. An American helicopter gunship fired all its weapons at the attackers and then flew off to re-arm. They fought on. The attack broke. And the platoon was ordered to withdraw.
Backing up, here is why Tinelle believes Miller’s actions saved lives:
“By the 26th, the platoon had conducted continuous operations for two days. The battalion was ex-filtrating. The platoon needed some rest while awaiting further orders. Prior to the shooting, the platoon was only at 50% security of the perimeter. The other men were resting, eating, and were not in the trucks. After the shooting, I ordered 100% security; we mounted and buttoned up our trucks. That is why we did not sustain mass casualties during the attack. If we were still at 50% security, men would have been outside their vehicles and could have been hit by the RPG and machinegun fire.”
SGT Miller was sentenced to life in prison at Fort Leavenworth with the possibility of parole.
SFC Tinelle was not called to testify as an expert in enemy tactics at Miller’s court martial. He did testify as to Miller’s character: He had been meritoriously promoted to Sergeant for his stellar performance as a M240-machine gunner, platoon trainer in new equipment, and as a team leader. In addition, Miller had previously served two tours in Iraq, volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, and spent 24 of the previous 48 months in combat zones.
SGT Miller was no murderer.
While known for his coolness under fire during that deployment – especially during the previous six months of almost daily fights with the Taliban – Miller also handed out candy to kids, kicked soccer balls around with them, and took care of his soldiers. SFC Tinelle believed SGT Miller would someday make Command Sergeant Major, the Army’s highest enlisted rank.
The Afghan National Police (ANP) in the area were called to investigate the shooting against the advisement of the MPs who said they were known to work with the local Taliban. What the ANP did with Atta’s body is anyone’s guess. No photographs of it were provided. No autopsy was conducted. Photographs of the scene taken by the ANP did not include Atta’s body.
U.S. Army CID did not conduct what can be called an investigation.
The soldier witness to the shooting twice made sworn statements confirming SGT Miller’s account of the shooting; he changed his story when threatened with being charged as an accessory to murder and held over past the end of his National Guard service date. The interpreter refused to make a statement at all unless he and his family were flown to the States and granted U.S. citizenship.
SGT Miller’s chain of command and Army prosecutors took it from there.
The interpreter claimed Atta had been shot in the right temple. That conflicted with another U.S. soldier’s testimony (he checked Atta for vitals) that Atta had been shot in the left temple. Miller was right-handed and both he and the soldier witness swore SGT Miller interrogated Atta face-to-face. Did the interpreter actually witness SGT Miller shoot Atta for no reason? Or did he see Atta grab the gun and just testify he did not grab it in order to keep his Visa from being revoked and him sent packing back to Afghanistan? One of the MPs guarding the interpreter and escorting him around the base before and during the court martial stated he pretty much admitted to her that he’d testify to anything they asked in order to remain here. She offered to testify for the defense but was not allowed to do so. The interpreter was the prosecution's star witness.
SGT Miller testified in his own defense. Yet without definitive forensic evidence one way or the other, the court martial members (the jury) had only his word against the words of two “eyewitnesses.” They found Miller guilty of premeditated murder.
Dishonored but unbowed, Miller hugged his family, shook hands with former platoon mates, and was taken off in hand and leg-irons to grow old or die in prison.
It took 8 years, yet his wonderful mother Renee Meyers never lost faith. She raised a small army of supporters and lobbied every politician in Maryland and the United States Congress who would listen.
Defense counsel LtCol Colby Vokey, USMC (Ret.), took up the case and filed SGT Miller’s request that his conviction be reduced to voluntary manslaughter. The board instead reduced his sentence to 20 years. Vokey immediately filed for a parole hearing. United American Patriots rallied support (www.UAP.org).
In February of this year, at Derrick's hearing, Renee testified about her son's character. The CEO of United American Patriots, LtCol David "Bull" Gurfein, USMCR (Ret.), testified on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who have provided support for Derrick – and who will continue to do so.
Two Congressional offices demonstrated bipartisan support: Congressman Louie Gohmert, a Republican, testified in person and Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat, who was called away at the last minute, had his Chief of Staff testify in his stead.
Finally, after 8 years in a prison cell, he was freed on parole on May 20, 2019. Yet justice will be served only when President Trump pardons Army Sergeant Derrick Miller.
Post contributed by Tim Sumner